By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Winning the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title was nice, but Fantacie Keahilihau-Kuamoo and the Hilo High softball team know there’s a whole lot more out there.
Sure, the Vikings had a lot to celebrate late last April. They ended rival Waiakea’s dynasty en route to winning their first BIIF crown since 2006.
Then the calendar turned to May, and all the fun ended. Still celebrating its win over Keaau in the Division I final, Hilo packed its bags for the Hawaii High High School Athletic Association tournament. But it left its confidence on the Big Island.
“We were scared,” ace-to-be Aliesa Kaneshiro said. “We had a lot of nerves. That just broke us down.”
It showed. The Vikings lost via TKO in their first game and failed to score a run in a quick two-game exit. Hilo had worked hard to get back to the top, only to realize that more hurdles needed to be climbed.
Keahilihau-Kuamoo certainly hasn’t forgotten. So when the standout shortstop fields a question about Hilo perhaps resting on its laurels as the defending league champion, she quickly turns on it like so many of the pitches she hammers in the batter’s box.
“No it is not (harder to find motivation),” said Keahilihau-Kuamoo, who hit above .500 last season as a run producer in the heart of the lineup. “That’s our goal this year. To compete past the Big Island mentality. Meaning, being able to think we can compete with Oahu teams at a higher level. So that when we play teams here, it will be easier to motivate ourselves to push harder.”
The state disappointment not withstanding, Leo Sing Chow feels her program has come a long way and is right where she figured it would be entering her fourth season.
“There’s a lot of spark on how the experience went on Oahu last year,” she said. “They want to be able to compete, and not just show up.”
The Vikings don’t enter the season with a pitcher who has ever thrown in a varsity game, and they’re hopeful that Kaneshiro can take over for her older sister, Ashlyn, as the team’s workhorse
But the infield is a veteran unit and strength with Keahilihau-Kuamoo, Shyanne Higa-Gonsalves, Caitlyn Price and Seini Nau, and Hilo is bolstered by the return of Jordyn Breitbarth and a freshmen class that Sing Chow is high on, both for its athleticism and its softball IQ.
The coach admitted that one of her biggest problems this season might be who she has to leave off the lineup card.
“The potential is huge this year,” Sing Chow said. “We have a lot of talent and our bench is deep and we have versatile players. We’re not having to do as much teaching, just fine-tuning.
“But that doesn’t mean that this is the team that is going to come out on top. As we tell the girls, it comes down to who plays the best together. We’re not going to take anybody lightly. We are still putting the pieces together.”
And Sing Chow, who pitched Kamehameha-Kapalama to a state title in 2002 before playing at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, already has taken her team back to Oahu to remind them how much work still needed to be done.
“Just in case they forgot,” she said.
Keahilihau-Kuamoo noted that the message was received. The results in a preseason tournament were much better,
“Last year, we went up there shell-shocked; a frozen face,” she said. “But this year we went and we saw the competition, and we saw that we were able to compete at their level.”
Instead of trying to gun down runners at catcher, Aliesa Kaneshiro, a junior, will try to show off her arm in the circle, starting with today’s 1 p.m. season-opener against Hawaii Prep in Waimea.
Armed with what she called a wide array of pitchers, she’s inherited her sister’s No. 8. Now she also will try to duplicate Ashlyn Kaneshiro’s strong mental makeup.
“If my nerves are taking over, just calm down, take a breather and overcome yourself,” Aliesa Kaneshiro said of what she learned from catching her sister the past two seasons. “I’m excited. I like the feeling that people are coming after us. It makes us play with more confidence and motivation.”
Sing Chow tabbed either Higa-Gonsalves or Shalyn Guthier as Kaneshiro’s replacement behind the plate. Higa-Gonsalves gave Hilo a strong bat at leadoff last season and a steady glove at second base, while Guthier is a freshman who played basketball in the winter.
If Higa-Gonsalves catches, freshman Sharlei Graham-Bernisto, another basketball player, or Reisha Hoopii-Haslam could play second.
Raven Hall could provide pop in the infield, outfield or at designated player, and Breitbarth, who opted to run track last spring, will be a welcomed addition to the outfield. Another new face is sophomore Tiani Teanio, a transfer from Waiakea who could play in the outfield.
Sing Chow is a big proponent of playing small-ball to generate runs, and she’ll even order Keahilihau-Kuamoo, one of the BIIF’s best hitters, to lay down the bunt at times.
That’s fine with the senior. She just wants to win — on the Big Island and beyond.
“We gained a lot in speed, quickness, communication and all of that,” Keahilihau-Kuamoo said. “We gained more than we lost.
“Everyone in the infield is capable of moving around and play different positions. We have lot of utility players on the team, so that’s going to pick us up.”