By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha knows from past experience that there’s nothing like having an ace, a big-game pitcher who not only trumps the other team’s top arm, but also punches the ticket — a bigger deal when there’s only one sitting on the table — to the state tournament.
Last season, Kamehameha ace Kaimana Moike and his counterpart from Honokaa, Dylan Shiraki, engaged each other in one of the best Big Island Interscholastic Federation postseason pitching duels in league history, following a semifinal matchup between Konawaena’s Ryan Torres-Torioka and Hawaii Prep’s Jayse Bannister that was equally impressive.
No matter the setup of the regular season, the most exciting action has been during the BIIF Division II semifinals when berths to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament are on the line.
All four aces went the distance. All of the classic games were close: Warriors over the Dragons 2-1, the Wildcats over the Ka Makani 1-0. Each pitcher threw a gem: Moike an eight-hitter and not retiring the side once, Shiraki a six-hitter, Torres-Torioka a two-hitter and Bannister a three-hitter.
Since statewide classification in 2008, there has never been two semifinals quite like that in the BIIF, and it came at the Division II level, where the balance of power has shifted to West Hawaii. Out of the 15 teams to reach states, only Kamehameha has represented the East side, as the league champ in 2010 and last year.
Moike and Shiraki are now teammates at Eastern Arizona Junior College while Bannister is at Holy Names, which is playing ball for the first time in the Pacific West Conference, and recently lost three of four to UH-Hilo. Those departures present uncertainty and much suspense for the BIIF’s second spot to the Division II state tourney.
Konawaena figures to be the team to beat in Division II, returning starting pitchers Torres-Torioka and Jarrett Kitaoka, two All-BIIF first-team picks at utility and shortstop, respectively. The two seniors are accompanied by more talent in catcher Evyn Yamaguchi, second baseman Royce Torres-Torioka and outfielder Domonic Morris, also all first-team selections.
Kamehameha lost both of its starting pitchers, Moike and Pono Correa. The best way to return to states is gain a semifinal berth opposite of the Wildcats, who host the Warriors on Monday, March 25. Last year in the BIIF championship, Kamehameha pounded Kona 13-0.
It would also help to get production from the six experienced Kamehameha bats in the lineup: catcher Makoa Rosario, second baseman Chad Teshima, shortstop Kupono Decker, third baseman Bronson Pulgados, and outfielders Chay Toson and Jordan Hirae.
Micah Carter and Kevin Davis will fill in at first base, and Matt Chun and Kobi Candaroma will see time in the outfield. Alika Young and freshman Daylen Calicdan will spend time in the infield, when Decker or Pulgados take the mound. Toson will also be counted on to pitch in with innings.
Decker was the No. 3 starter last season, and offers the most pitching experience. Pulgados and Toson have limited mound time, but coach Andy Correa believes his pitching trio will grow with each game.
“Decker has pretty good stuff,” Correa said. “Bronson is very competitive and he’ll keep us in games. He’ll compete and throw strikes. Chay is a lefty with plenty of movement. Hirae will give us innings, too. He has the same type of makeup. He’s competitive, throws strikes and pitches to contact.”
That’s a pitching strategy Pulgados will rely on. Moike threw hard, a reason he snagged a scholarship to Eastern Arizona. There’s not a flame-thrower among the starting trio, but that doesn’t concern Pulgados.
“We can’t replace Kaimana. He had the skills to blow guys away,” he said. “Our pitchers this year will have to hit their spots and keep hitters off-balanced. My mindset is to let my defense work because I know I don’t have overwhelming pitches to strike out somebody.
“I have to trust my defense to get out of innings. We have to stick together and work as one. No one stands out on our team. We don’t have that one dominant player.”
The Warriors are hoping that a compilation of all the little things can fill the big hole left by their pitching ace Moike, who also played shortstop when he didn’t pitch.
“We’ve been hitting the ball pretty good and putting it in play during preseason,” Correa said. “We’ve got more speed in the lineup and our outfield is faster. On defense, we’re athletic.
“The key is pitching and defense as usual. You always need pitching and defense in any league to have a chance. You always have to bring pitching and defense to the ballpark. But the main thing is we’ve got a good group of boys. They’re consciences. They’ll work hard to get better.”