By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEAAU — Even with a performance that’s less than her best, Lohi Kamakea-Wong, who struggled all game long searching for her release point, is still pretty tough to beat.
The sophomore right-hander fired a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts and Keaau topped Kohala 8-1 in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation softball season-opener between division runner-ups Saturday at the Cougars field.
Sometimes, Kamakea-Wong would release the ball a little low. Sometimes, her release point was a little high. Despite the mechanical issues, she walked only one and allowed an unearned run.
“I thought I did OK. I could have done better,” she said. “My release point was off, but I let it (the ball) go and tried harder. I was hitting corners and the target where my catcher (Aiyana Silva) put her glove. I was getting strikeouts on fastballs and changeups, mostly.”
Ashlyn Van Zandt went the distance in the loss. The Cowgirls (0-1) scored their only run in the first when Sheana Cazimero raced to third on Kamakea-Wong’s throwing error and scored on a wild pitch. But Keaau answered with three runs in the bottom of the inning, highlighted by Leshey Makuakane’s two-run single.
The Cougars (1-0) finished as the BIIF Division I runner-up last season. But they lost to Moanalua 13-0 at home in a play-in game for the final spot to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament.
Keaau returns only four starters in Kamakea-Wong, her cousin junior second baseman Shaniya Kamakea-Wong, sophomore shortstop Rylan Hakoba, and senior catcher Silva.
Shaniya Kamakea-Wong batted 3 for 3 with an RBI, sophomore third baseman Makuakane 3 for 4 with three RBIs and sophomore first baseman Iana Clark went 2 for 3.
“I see a lot of potential and I like our hitting,” Keaau coach William “Boy” Wong said. “If we can make plays for Lohi, she’ll make it stand up because she throws a lot of strikes. If we minimize our mistakes, we’ll be in the ballgame.
“We’ve only got four experienced players from last year’s team. The others will catch on and we’ll be all right. But this is almost the junior varsity team.”
At least Lohi Kamakea-Wong can pitch the Cougars through their growing pains. She’s a valuable insurance policy because she’s been in big moments. Her determination in the circle has pulled her team out of disasters before.
As a freshman, she pitched out of a no-out, bases-loaded pickle to earn a save in Keaau’s 5-1 victory over Waiakea, snapping the Warriors’ 59-game winning streak. She beat Kealakehe 10-3 in the BIIF semifinals, and lost to Hilo 10-4 in the championship, giving up six runs with only three earned.
“I think the team is a work-in-progress. We’re trying hard to do good,” Lohi Kamakea-Wong said. “We all get along and bond as one. We’re aggressive on the bases, and eat up everything (on defense) in the infield. A BIIF title will be pretty tough, but I believe in our team and we can do it.”
She’s the full-time ace after the graduation of Chelsey Pacatang-Hirai and Momi Cariaga. Makuakane will also pitch in as the No. 2 pitcher, but Kamakea-Wong will shoulder the bulk of the innings. And she’s ready for the ace role.
“I know I can count on my teammates. What I learned from Chelsey was to block everything out, don’t let anything bother you,” she said, a reason a mechanical issue like a faulty release point was no big deal.
Meanwhile, the Cowgirls return five starters in sophomore pitcher/infielder Van Zandt, senior center fielder Sheana Cazimero, who will be counted on to provide offense and defense, much like her duty for the basketball team, senior first baseman Tiani Luga, sophomore catcher Tomiko Coito and sophomore shortstop Danae Rivera.
Last year’s ace, Chyler Imai, pitched in every game. She’s playing volleyball at Western New Mexico. Van Zandt takes over as the staff ace on a young team, which has three freshmen starters in left fielder Briana Harrison, second baseman Kiana Alejandro and third baseman Kyrah Sol.
“We’ve got a lot of young players, but I think we’ll do good,” said Van Zandt, who doesn’t throw hard, but compensates with a table-dropping changeup. “Everybody has to keep their heads up and give it their all. I like our teamwork. We need everybody to work together.
“It’s a lot of pressure (being the ace) but I try to do my best. It’s a learning experience when we play the stronger teams in Division I. We’ll only get better when we play the harder teams. It will only help us.”
Kohala coach Terrence Alcoran found the same silver lining in the loss, and he was impressed with the Cougars, whose only state appearance was in 2004 as the BIIF runner-up. Since statewide classification in 2004, the Cowgirls have made trips from 2006 to ’08 and from 2010 to ’12.
“Keaau’s pitcher is good and Keaau is pretty good. They look like they’ll contend,” he said. “We want to keep up with the teams in Division II and if we do that against Division I teams that’s a plus. It’s a good experience for us, and if we do win against them then that’s good for us.
“But we’ve got to hit and execute. We didn’t hit today. We didn’t execute and missed a bunt (in the first inning, but a wild pitch scored the run). We didn’t do that. We’re going to work harder at practice.”
Luga is the team’s top bat. She was on the All-BIIF Division II first team last season; Lohi Kamakea-Wong landed on the Division first team as an outfielder.
Alcoran figures the offense will come around, and Van Zandt will grow into her role as the staff ace. Like Van Zandt, he appreciates the team’s mental makeup.
“The team is a little looser than last year,” he said. “They’ve got good attitudes. As long as they’re having fun and play hard, we should do good.
“I think this year is going to be interesting. We’ll see who steps up in Division I and II. By midseason, we’ll know.”
Kohala 100 000 0 — 1 3 1
Keaau 300 401 x — 8 12 2