By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Waiakea will have a lot of holes to fill after losing 13 of 18 players from a ballclub last season that relied on pitching and team chemistry as much as anything to capture the Division I state championship.
The Warriors return three starters in senior catcher Kean Wong, junior pitcher Kodi Medeiros and senior second baseman Alika Guillermo, introducing the team’s new look at the 2nd annual Waiakea Invitational.
“Right now, we’re working on team chemistry,” second-year coach Kevin Yee said. “Last year, team chemistry was huge, especially with a new coach coming in. When you talk about intangibles on the team, that was the biggest thing for us. A lot of them played together on the youth level and up through high school, and everyone stuck together to make it happen.
“It will be different, but we treat each season as a new beginning. The team will definitely look different. It’ll be a new look but the guys returning have what it takes. We’ll be all right.”
Wong and Medeiros, a pair of first team All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation picks last season, will attract a lot of attention, and not just from opposing teams.
Last year, Wong hit .404 with two homers and 13 RBIs and had a .529 on-base percentage. Medeiros was 4-0 with a 1.81 ERA in 27 innings with 39 strikeouts. He also batted .386 with a homer and 18 RBIs, and had a .429 on-base average.
Wong, who earlier signed with Hawaii, and Medeiros, a UH verbal commit, will be tracked by Major League Baseball scouts at the Baldwin preseason tourney at the end of the month. And it’s not just MLB organizations drawn to that spotlight, which could also benefit others.
“I had three scouts call and confirm to be at our tourney. Once they heard we’d play Punahou, they changed plans to go to the Baldwin tourney,” Yee said. “Most will be at the Baldwin tourney. A lot more colleges and junior colleges are contacting me in regards to any players we have. The door is starting to open for a lot more players with an opportunity to play at the next level (in college).”
The MLB draft runs June 6-8. Last season at the Baldwin tourney, Yee estimated there were eight to 10 scouts in attendance, including a couple of national crosscheckers. Yee expects more scouts and the same composed demeanor from Wong.
“He does a great job handling the pressure because he’s played in front of showcases and different national events. He’s comfortable with it,” Yee said. “Once the game gets going, he doesn’t worry about it.
“A couple of scouts have inquired about Kodi. He’s definitely on the map. He’s been to a couple of different showcases and has gotten interest. He’s been on a pretty good workout and throwing regimen. He looks pretty much ready to go.”
Waiakea’s preseason tourney is not only the school’s major fundraiser to help pay for everyday items like uniforms, dirt for the field and such, it’s also an open audition.
Medeiros is the only returning pitcher. Guillermo and junior Chase Komatsu are being counted on to fill innings. The Warriors could also receive a boost from two promising freshmen, Caleb Freitas-Fields and Taylor Mondina.
“They give us size and can hit a little bit,” Yee said. “They’ll probably start somewhere. Caleb is 6 feet. He’s a big kid. He can play any position, shortstop, third base, first base, outfield. We’ll see. Taylor’s about 5-8. He can play pretty much anywhere in the infield. Both can pitch. We’ll give them opportunities over the course of the year to make starts, along with our returning guys.
“We’ve got a lot of guys up from the junior varsity who can throw. It’ll be exciting for the younger guys to step in. We brought a lot up from the junior varsity and having them practice and play with Kean and Kodi is huge. They can see their work ethic. Hopefully it carries over to them, which makes my coaching job a lot easier.”
Not easy will be the road to a third straight BIIF championship. Other Division I teams have, maybe not more singular talent along the lines of Wong and Medeiros, but more depth. Keaau returns most of its lineup, and Hilo has starting pitchers Kian Kurokawa and Nick Fukunaga back.
History may not mean anything, but it doesn’t favor Waiakea, which finished last season with a 20-0 record en route to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association title. The league championship changes hands every two years between Waiakea and Hilo, a pattern that started in 2007, when the Warriors won two in a row. Then the Viks won a pair.
The BIIF season opener isn’t until March 9. Waiakea gets a bye that day and plays Pahoa the following week. The BIIF Division I championships, a two-day test of pitching depth, will provide resolution.
“The league will be tough. Keaau will be tough. They’ve got pretty much their whole starting team back,” Yee said. “Hilo has six of their nine starters back (including shortstop Chayce Kaaua, who signed with UH).
“It’ll be healthy competition, especially with us playing everyone (instead of the East-West divided schedule). It’ll be good fun, just to see the different players and competition. Division II will be incredible this year. Most of those teams will be neck and neck as far as talent goes.”
Until then, it’s a new beginning for the Warriors, who can count on Wong to set an example with his old-fashioned work ethic.
“Kean’s doing really well. He’s worked hard in the offseason,” Yee said. “He’s gotten stronger and quicker. He’s kept himself in shape. His arm looks really good. He’s looking ready to go, and he’s anxious to get the season started.”
Keaau vs. Honokaa, 11 a.m.
Kona vs. Hawaii Prep, 1:30 p.m.
Waiakea vs. Lahainaluna, 4 p.m.
Hilo vs. Kamehameha, 6:30 p.m.
Keaau vs. Lahainaluna, 11 a.m.
Honokaa vs. HPA, 1:30 p.m.
Hilo vs. Kona, 4 p.m.
Waiakea vs. Kamehameha, 6:30 p.m.
Kamehameha vs. Honokaa, 10 a.m.
Keaau vs. HPA, 12:30 p.m.
Ceremony, 3 p.m.
Waiakea vs. Kona, 4 p.m.
Hilo vs. Lahainaluna, 5 p.m.