By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Don’t get Betsy Tranquilli wrong. The Hawaii prep softball coach is excited about all of her players.
It’s just that one is not quite like all the rest. Camille Kiyota doesn’t fit the mold of the typical Ka Makani this season.
HPA is long on athletes, for sure, but it’s somewhat short on experience. That’s one reason why Kiyota figures to stand out as a team backbone, whether she’s captaining the defense at catcher or anchoring the lineup from the No. 3 spot. The team’s only senior, Kiyota also gives the Ka Makani their most precious commodity: seasoning on the diamond.
“Softball is what she does, and she does it well,” Tranquilli said. “Camille is hands-down one of the best players in the league. She’s going to be a scary hitter this year.”
Tranquilli begins her eighth season — her teams the last two years both narrowly missed out on a program-first berth in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation playoffs — with 11 fresh faces in tow but with bright expectations in what they can eventually achieve.
Tranquilli isn’s dwelling on all that HPA lost: four players graduated, two transferred and another key contributor, junior Tiana Bertelmann-Tabac, will miss the season with a knee injury.
Coming off of a 3-9 year, she’s just focused on what the Ka Makani gained: “A lot of very young, talented kids who are going to be with us for a long time. Most of them have not played (softball), but they’re extraordinarily athletic.”
With a chuckle, she says the roster has more soccer players than softball players. That’s just the nature of the beast at HPA.
“I always feel like we’re building,” Tranquilli said. “It’s so rare for us to get true softball players. It’s just not a sport they’ve been growing up playing. I’m borrowing basketball players, soccer players, volleyball players and turning them into softball players. It’s very rare you get a Camille.”
Tranquilli is the only coach the program has known, and she started from scratch eight years ago, initially having to teach some players what an out was. There were lean years and 30-0 beatings when Tranquilli wondered if the program would survive. But it’s turned the corner and found stable ground in recent years, and with Kiyota as well as new players such as Gabbie Ewing and Kaui Taylor, HPA appears primed to remain competitive.
The first goal is to end the playoff drought, something that’s eluded the Ka Makani the past two years in season-ending losses in win-or-go-home showdowns with Konawaena. With the islandwide round-robin schedule this year — Hawaii Prep opens at home Saturday against defending Division I champion Hilo — six of seven teams in Division II will reach the postseason.
“We need to try our hardest to make sure it doesn’t come down to the last game,” Kiyota said.
To help make that happen, she’s worked hard in the weightroom and by running to improve her conditioning. Kiyota said her batting average was around “.500-something” her sophomore year, then about .333 last season after she suffered a preseason injury.
Kiyota recently went on a tour of college campuses, and Tranquilli called the trip a benchmark for a program that not so long ago wasn’t churning out any players who had the potential to play at the next level.
With so many young teammates, Kiyota describes her most important job as “leadership,” especially as HPA breaks in a new pitcher, Kawena Lim-Samura.
“Last year we had some girls that were more experienced,” Kiyota said. “It’s different being the only one who has that experience.
“A lot of them are athletes. I think that because they’re athletes it helps them pick up on things faster.”
Two of the athletic reinforcements are Ewing and Taylor, players that will help bolster the defense up the middle.
Tranquilli called Ewing a “fantastic addition” off the soccer team who’s capable of playing any position. The sophomore will bat leadoff and play center field. Ewing will play alongside a pair players in the outfield who have experience, sophomore Tehani Grasso in left and the steady hitting Alexa Meyer, a junior, in right.
Taylor is a freshman shortstop with some experience, and Tranquilli has had her eye on her since she taught Taylor in the fourth grade.
“I’ve been waiting for that kid to get here since,” the coach said, “and I’m so excited to have her now.”
Another soccer standout, freshman Marlie Mandaguit, will play second base, while junior Ranko Ono returns and will be slotted in at third base. Sophomore Tehane Reynolds will fill play first base and get a shot at pitching
Lim-Samura, a junior, gained some valuable seasoning last season and will be counted on to carry most of the pitching load.
Tranquilli said she carries a determined demeanor in the circle and has the potential to carry a big bat from the cleanup spot.
“In batting practice, it’s been home run derby with her,” Tranquilli said. “She’s been scary. We’re excited to see her hit.”