There’s a wild learning curve for young teams, and the Kaiser Cougars have been riding that road from day one.
Mitch Matsumoto knows the ups and downs, the highs and lows well. The eighth-year Kaiser coach had previous stops at Moanalua, Anuenue and Island Pacific. He is, in so many ways, the right manager for the current Cougars, who are talented, young, erratic and undeterred. Despite the loss of two starting players to academic probation, the Cougars endured their first loss of the season (to Roosevelt, 11-2), and then at Farrington (17-16).
The turnaround came on Thursday, where powerful gusts blowing in from left field (and Kamiloiki Valley) was a factor. With winds up to 20-25 mph at times, Moanalua looked out of sorts, committing four errors. More than that, Kaiser pitcher Primrose Aholelei gritted through and hung on for a 10-9 victory that kept the Cougars right behind Moanalua in the chase for the top seed in the OIA East.
Kaiser (6-2-1) trails Moanalua (6-1-1) by one loss. Roosevelt is right there at 6-2.
Aholelei, more than any Cougar, it seems, has persevered the most. The ace pitcher was a cornerstone as Kaiser opened the season with three wins and a league-opening tie with Moanalua. But since beating Kailua 4-2, and not including a forfeit win over Castle, Kaiser’s defense hasn’t been the same, and the Cougars have permitted massive run totals: 11 by Roosevelt, 17 by Farrington and nine by Moanalua.
The Cougars can belt the ball at the plate, though. They received second chance after second chance against Moanalua thanks to those fielding and throwing errors, and came through. It’s not exactly an elite statistical category, but scoring nine runs after Moanalua errors says something about being opportunistic.
Aholelei, who also drove in two runs with a double in a big six-run fourth inning, said her two sisters — the academically ineligible players — watched the game across the field from the baseball bleachers. One sister was her catcher, and the other a first baseman. Both can also pitch, Matsumoto noted. Primrose has kept her composure throughout the turbulence of this roller-coaster ride.
“It’s been hard without my sisters,” she said.
Partly because of the academic casualties, Kaiser’s young lineup was down in numbers so badly that Matsumoto had to bring up a junior varsity player. Freshman Alyssa Kaleiohi starts in right field.
“I miss my friends,” she said of leaving the JV Cougars. “JV has less pressure. I wanted to stay down.”
Kaleiohi showed no signs of stress, though, fielding her position cleanly. Though Kaiser’s program has been on the upswing in recent seasons, the low numbers this season make call-ups to the varsity a necessity. It’s the same pattern at other mostly smaller schools — Kaiser’s enrollment is around 1,100, Matsumoto said — where student-athletes are thrust into the proverbial fire. Most neighbor-island programs know this well, playing ninth-graders in varsity.
The key for smaller programs that do succeed is a fruitful feeder program. Aholelei plays for Matsumoto’s Kamikaze Softball Club, which also has five Kailua players on its roster. Kaleiohi plays for three clubs and is considering playing for Kamikaze.
There are a lot of seventh- and eighth-graders who dream of starting for a varsity team as a freshman, but the reality is, there’s far less margin for error. But with success, the definition of fun begins to include pressure and expectations and all the other intangibles that make the quest for championships what they are.
The Cougars, post-academic suspensions, have adapted. They have evolved. They don’t feel sorry for themselves, nor should they. And nobody else in the OIA East, including a Roosevelt team that Matsumoto believes is on par with the powerhouses in the OIA West, will feel pity for the Cougars, either. Ask questions in class, do the homework, a C grade is likely. Do it well, maybe a B. Excel, earn an A. Along the way, the Cougars who are doing the work in the classroom and on the diamond are in the midst of a remarkable season.
“We were lucky,” Matsumoto said. “Hoku (Kaneaiakala) hit well. She didn’t even play last year.”
Kaneaiakala, batting sixth in the lineup, went 2-for-3 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored. Tahani Kahawai-Robertson (2-for-3, triple, two RBIs, two runs) and Trinidee Kahunahana (3-for-4, double, two RBIs, two runs) were ideal at the top two spots in the batting order against Moanalua.
Where there’s a void, there is opportunity. Aholelei was brilliant at times, as impressive as a rose. But when fatigue set in, she gutted it out as Moanalua’s last-inning rally was snuffed out. Every rose protects itself with a line of thorns.