By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Toni Baybayan spent two years on Oahu and is a 2013 Kalani High graduate, but for the scholarship soccer player at Holy Names, her heart will always belong to Keaau, her hometown and old school.
She played soccer and volleyball for the Cougars during her freshman and sophomore years in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, moving away from her close-knit circle of family and friends to live with her sister, Leinisha Baybayan, to improve her opportunities to land a scholarship.
“I really wanted to challenge myself because I knew that moving was going to be better for me in the long run not only in soccer, but also just learning to be independent and self-motivated,” Baybayan said. “Being a part of the Honolulu Bulls I got the opportunity to train with the best and play against very competitive teams. I also got the opportunity to travel to California, Las Vegas and Washington for college showcases and competitive tournaments.
“On Oahu, I lived with my older sister Leinisha who is attending UH-Manoa. I really want to give props to her because having your little sister who is still in high school living with you when you’re in college is not the easiest thing. I am so grateful to have a sister like her, who was willing to put up with me.”
From a young age, she found her favorite subject. Baybayan joined AYSO at 5 years old, former coach Dave Mena’s Haaheo Soccer Club five years later and was selected at age 13 to play with the Honolulu Bulls — her longest affiliation. She has volunteered in the Keiki Bulls program and also coached the club’s Ultimate Challenge Soccer Camps every school break.
She played year-round soccer for the Bulls in 2012, skipping her junior season at Kalani. Her longest break was two weeks. Then she played for the Falcons as a senior, when she earned All-Oahu Interscholastic Association second-team honors and was named Kalani’s offensive MVP.
Baybayan kept herself busy. In her junior year, she worked with special needs students after school. She was part of the Health Occupations Students of America club, where she got a CPR/first aid certificate, and she taught what she learned to the elementary students. Her senior year, she was part of a committee that organized a health fair for second graders in the community. She was also an intern at Kaimuki Care, a physical therapy and rehabilitation clinic.
But during that two-year stretch on Oahu, her thoughts would always drift back to home. That old motto “Home is where the heart is” fits her perfectly.
“Just the Big Island in general is so laid-back compared to living on Oahu. Keaau was someplace I was very comfortable at,” she said. “It’s such a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. I loved being a Keaau Cougar because being on the soccer team felt like being a part of a family.
“Being at Kalani was so different because I went in literally not knowing anyone. I was way out of my comfort zone there and I really had to challenge myself to stick it out when it came to soccer and school.”
Her mom is Tonya, an educational assistant at Keaau Middle School and the Keaau High cheerleading coach, and her dad is Leonard Baybayan, a mechanic at the Department of Water Supply.
They had a proud moment when their independent and self-motivated daughter graduated magna cum laude with a 3.8 grade-point average at Kalani.
“Graduating magna cum laude was a big accomplishment for me because I was proud that I was able to maintain good grades while playing club and high school soccer,” said Baybayan, a business major. “I was very proud of myself for staying on top of my grades, especially because I didn’t have mom and dad living with me to make sure I did.
“A life lesson they gave me was ‘Don’t take the easy way out.’ There were so many times I wanted to quit soccer because I just couldn’t handle all the stress from school and everyday life, then having to go to practice. There were so many times I just missed the Big Island so much and wanted to move back. If it weren’t for my parents telling me not to take the easy way out, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The freshman Holy Names midfielder counts grandpa Leonard Baybayan Sr., affectionately known as Papa Galban, as her biggest influence.
“I was very close to him. He passed away when I was young, but he is someone I admire so much for all the sacrifices he made for his family,” she said. “Whenever things get rough, I know he is there guiding me and helping me get through it. I strive for the best to make him proud.
“Galban was just the name everyone called him. He immigrated here from the Philippines when he was young and worked in the plantation. He was always hard working and put everyone before himself. Growing up, I lived right across the street from my grandparents so I was with them pretty much every day.”
For Baybayan, the best thing about playing for Holy Names, at least from a family standpoint, is that Holy Names is in the Pacific West Conference and she’ll get a free trip home.
The Hawks (1-4) of Oakland, Calif., visit the University of Hawaii at Hilo (4-0-1) on Oct. 26 in a conference game. Then it’s a three-match Oahu trip. Holy Names will play Hawaii Pacific on Oct. 28, Chaminade on Oct. 31 and BYU-Hawaii on Nov. 2.
Like her attention to detail when it came time to hit the books, Baybayan also applied that same focus to finding the perfect school.
“Holy Names University was a school I researched and knew it was where I wanted to go. It had what I wanted to major in (business sports management),” she said. “It’s a small school so class sizes are small. It’s a gated school and the city is really close. It’s a Catholic school, and we are in the PacWest for soccer. It was the perfect school for me. I am on academic and athletic scholarship.
“The athletics program just recently moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II so the level of competition is high and people really expect a lot out of you. Fighting for a spot on the team was not easy. Getting a starting spot is even harder. The coaches see everything you do, so every second counts. The school is very small so it kind of feels like home, where everyone knows everyone. There are also a lot of people from Hawaii here, so it’s acceptable to eat spam musubi and even talk pidgin sometimes.”
All the conversation about her homecoming sent her over the moon with anticipation. Saturday, Oct. 26, can’t come soon enough for Baybayan, who has played in all five Hawk games, getting one start and has an assist.
“I am very excited to come home and play the Vulcans because I get to show my family and friends everything I worked hard for,” she said. “I get to make my parents proud by showing them that all those hours they spent taking me to practices and games, and all the money spent sending me to Oahu and tournaments on the mainland was worth it.”
Then Baybayan reminisced about what she misses most.
“I miss the Big Island so much. I miss the simple life and all my friends and family. I miss the beautiful beaches and aloha spirit, and most of all I miss the local food,” said Baybayan, letting her tight-knit circle know that home is where her heart is.
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