By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Time flies, the grass grows tall and eventually everyone goes their own way — facts of life for Kian Kurokawa to ponder as he begins his new path.
The 2013 Hilo High graduate will soon head to the University of Puget Sound to play baseball and score blue-chip grades, leaving behind longtime friends, but bringing along past memories of glory on the diamond.
The right-handed pitcher departs for the private liberal arts school in Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 20. Division III schools can’t offer athletic scholarships, but Kurokawa has a package of an academic grant, president’s scholarship and financial aid that covers 60 percent of tuition.
The Loggers play in the Northwest Conference, also home to Pacific (Ore.) University, the popular small-college West Coast choice for many local graduates. Puget Sound, however, features one well-known local in assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Kainoa Correa.
Correa is a 2006 Waiakea and 2011 Puget Sound graduate. He first recruited Kurokawa at Kaha Wong’s Hilo College Camp two years ago. He’s getting a pitcher who still hasn’t hit his head on the ceiling.
As a freshman, Kurokawa stood 5 feet 8 and had the build of a lanky baby giraffe. Now, he’s 6 feet, still long and lean with a pitcher’s frame, but filled out with solid muscle. His summer’s work of weight lifting has served him well.
He’s pitched three of the most memorable games in recent history for the Vikings. As a junior in 2012, Kurokawa survived a dogfight in Hilo’s 6-5 state play-in victory over Campbell to earn a berth to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I tournament. The Vikings rallied from a four-run deficit with one out in the last inning.
Five days later, Kurokawa and the Viks produced a 5-3 upset over Punahou, a seven-time state champion, in the first round. Hilo’s ace scattered a seven-hitter.
In his final start in a Vikings uniform on May 9 at Iron Maehara Stadium on Maui, Kurokawa fired a six-hitter and outdueled University of Hawaii-bound Bryce Ah Sam in a 5-3 win in the state quarterfinals.
“I’ve known Kian since he was a little kid. When I returned home to Hawaii in 2011, coach Kaha highly suggested Kian,” Correa said. “I was instantly surprised to see how much Kian had grown. Although his velocity wasn’t overpowering at all, I loved his toughness on the mound, and his ability to throw three pitches for strikes.
“After watching him beat Punahou on OC16’s live streaming website and seeing him again in person at the 2012 Hilo College Camp, I was pleased to see that Kian had continued to progress, and I decided that he was a guy we wanted to join our pitching heavy 2013 class.”
Kurokawa graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average, and a good idea of the road ahead. He plans to major in engineering. He didn’t visit Puget Sound, which has an endowment of $217 million; Pacific has $40 million. But thanks to the Internet, he went on a fact-finding mission, checked out pictures and found the school much to his liking.
“I’m really excited because coach Kainoa is there and feel really comfortable since he recruited me,” Kurokawa said. “He told me it’s a nice school and I’m excited to play at the next level.
“I’ve never heard of the school until they came down. The main thing is academics. The first thing is what school would be best for me academically. I checked it out online, and it seemed really nice and fit all my needs.”
Puget Sound is a nationally ranked liberal arts institution. And when Correa scouts, he’s looking for players with more than academic achievements on their resume.
“In small-college baseball, like in any other team environment, one bad apple can spoil the team dynamic and negatively impact your overall team performance,” Correa said. “Our coaching staff puts a large emphasis in finding players that we consider OKGs (Our Kind of Guys), players who are high performance and low ego. From the moment I talked to Kian about our program he was respectful and asked all the right questions. I really liked that he was quiet and unassuming off the field, and confident on the field.
“Immediately when I attend a camp, I am forced to shorten my list to student-athletes who meet our academic criteria. Fortunately for our program, Kian was a slam-dunk admit for our program. He is one of 18 commits in our 2013 class.”
His good habit of hitting the books hard can be credited to his parents, Kevin and Wendy Kurokawa, especially his mom who is a teacher at Kapiolani Elementary. His dad works for the United States Postal Service.
As fate would have it, Kurokawa landed in mom’s class in sixth grade for English and science. He called Mrs. Kurokawa “mom,” but she treated him like any other student, not as a cherished son, in her classroom.
“My parents have told me if you work hard you can accomplish anything,” Kurokawa said. “She’s really tough on me in school since she’s a teacher. She would help and support me from baseball, basketball, school to almost everything I do.
“It was kind of awkward being in her class. But it was nice though. I had to deal with it. She was definitely harder on me. When I was in school, there was no favoritism.”
Kurokawa’s appreciation goes from one parent to the next. His dad was his first pitching coach; father and son built catch-and-throw memories to last a lifetime. In tune with his hoops mindset to pass the ball, he credited all his coaches, especially his personal pitching coach, Kevin Kane, and youth coach, Kaha Wong, for his development.
One of his goals is to increase his velocity, not to blow hard cheese past collegiate bats, but to pitch more effectively from the same thinking man’s template he’s followed all his life. When his motion is in sync, his fluid right arm unleashes a dagger of a changeup, his best pitch, that tails and dives, sneaking under bats.
During the summer, Kurokawa has worked for the Hawaii Stars as part of the grounds crew. He’s received a paid education, too, studying the independent pro pitchers. The way they pitch has only reinforced his game plan.
“I’ve just watched how they set up batters and if you don’t hit your spots, you will get hit,” he said. “You need to hit your spots and change speeds.”
When he isn’t working out, Kurokawa is soaking up the last minutes of summer, and enjoying his time with old teammates. Two Vikings, Nic Fukunaga and Aidan Nakamura, will enroll at nearby Seattle University. Others will remain close to home, like Chayce Kaaua, who will be on scholarship at UH.
“It’s going to be kind of sad. Time goes on, and we go our separate ways,” Kurokawa said. “But we’ll always have that bond of playing together from young kid time. It’s amazing to see everybody grow up, and go to the next level.”