It took 6 innings to figure this out.
Actually, it took more. Down to their last strike, Nanakuli — epic, juggernaut, invincible Nanakuli — was about to get tapped out by nemesis Aiea in the OIA Division II championship game. AGAIN.
Most sportswriters would have written a lead paragraph already, and much more. After being mesmerized by Aiea’s comeback ace, Poamai Tuli for 6 2/3 innings, normal teenaged kids might wilt and cave in.
Not Nanakuli. Three hits and a hit batter later, the Golden Hawks were triumphant with a 3-2 victory. They are now 15-0, and at least one of the Golden Hawks was glad to see the masterful Tuli — who had spent six weeks rehabilitating from a gastrocnemius muscle injury — on the mound.
“She’s really good,” said Kika Mahoe, who kick-started the seventh-inning rally by scratching out an infield single. “We were hoping she’d be back. We needed a challenge.”
When any athlete says something similar, it may sound less than sporting, but for Nanakuli, it’s real. The Golden Hawks have done their share of off-season training and traveling — a few years back, Coach Ricky Gusman assembled six of his players, added four Arizona players, and went on a trip to the Southwest. They even scrimmaged Eastern Arizona, he said, where daughter Marina Gusman-Brown, the former multi-sport standout, was an assistant coach.
Players from Nanakuli have gone on to play at college. The small school on the Leeward Coast has become a destination program. So when Mahoe says, “We needed a challenge,” the record speaks loud and clear:
>> 10 of 13 regular-season wins decided by 10-run mercy rule
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With Tuli craftily working the outer edge of the plate, the Hawks finally caught up to her. With Mahoe on first and two outs in the seventh, Kaila Burnett clutched up. Burnett, a third-year starter at catcher who also bats leadoff for Nanakuli, sent an outside-half breaking back to the right-center gap. It was arguably the most skilled swing of the night.
“It’s the biggest hit of my life, the first time I ever came through in the clutch,” the junior said of the run-scoring double that tied the game.
Moments later, Daria Kawaauhau delivered her game-winning single to left, scoring Burnett for the win. Now the Golden Hawks from Nanakuli Valley emerge as a seeded team at the upcoming state tourney. Last year, they ousted Konawaena 16-6, No. 1 seed Pac-Five 5-1, and fourth-seeded Kamehameha-Hawaii 11-2.
In a rematch with Aiea, Nanakuli won 6-5 for the state crown. This time, they’ll need only two games to return to the final. Ace Kanalei McCoy has proven that she can handle the test, but one less game never hurts.
“She’s tough on herself,” Gusman said of the right-hander.
They have the luxury of mixing in Chalyssa-Ann Belford, who is 6-0 in 29 innings pitched this season.