By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Keaau baseball team is used to taking its knocks, and most of its players return from last season. The losing mentality has not.
While the names and faces are the same, the changes in preseason practice, senior shortstop Jonothan Segovia said, are unmistakable.
“Different vibe; better vibe,” he said. “This year, we have our stuff together and have a chance.”
Practically everywhere you look, the Cougars will have a senior — eight in total — and Segovia feels experience has begun to breed confidence on the veteran team.
“We have a lot of trust in one another, and we work well as a team,” he said. “Compared to how we used to be, attitudes are much better.”
By coach Herb Yasuhara’s count, the program hasn’t been competitive since 2008. Keaau finished 6-10 last year in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, though four of those losses came to eventual state champion Waiakea and another three were to Hilo, which finished third in the state.
“This year we stack up against (Waiakea and Hilo) the best out of the past five years,” Yasuhara said.
One reason for optimism is that while his team usually faces a big experience gap compared to its East Hawaii rivals, that isn’t as much of a problem this year.
“We had a few guys play in the (offseason) and a lot of them have developed skills through the years even if they didn’t play in the offseason,” Yasuhara said. “That’s going to help us a lot. The kids are responding to us. They know what we expect of them.”
Like everyone else, Keaau went down swinging against Warriors’ ace Quintin Torres-Costa, including three times in the regular season. But the Cougars made things interesting in the BIIF Division I semifinals, leading Waiakea 2-0 in the fifth inning before falling 4-2.
“We know what it feels like to be there,” Segovia said. “What we’re working on now is finishing the deal. Finishing off stronger.”
Segovia, Keaau’s only all-BIIF East first-team selection in 2012 and its lone .300 hitter, is a four-year starter who will bat at the top of the order. The rest of the infielders — Rylen Martines at second, Cody Silva at third and first baseman Keha Wong — are seasoned as well, giving the Cougars something to hang their hats on heading into their 1 p.m. opener at home Saturday against Kohala.
“Our infield defense, up the middle, is our strong point,” Yasuhara said.
That’s good news for starting pitchers Adrian Huff and Maleko Remlinger, who often threw strikes and pitched to contact last season. The team may not have a go-to ace, but their coach is hopeful increased strength for Huff and Remlinger will help them get a little more on the ball this season.
Catcher Rason Martines is the lone non-senior in the field, but the junior has experience as well. Either Huff or Remlinger will play center in the outfield along with Kona Aina and Na’ali’l Kanakaole-Wong.
The Cougars don’t have an overabundance of power — no player has hit a varsity home run — so Keaau will have to hit line drives and take advantage of its good team speed to score runs. But for the order to really click, Yasuhara says more patience is needed at the plate.
However, with the experience on hand, he said that reaching states was a realistic goal.
“That is in the back of their minds,” Yasuhara said. “They’ve never gone. They hear the people talk about it.”
There are two new faces in the dugout — volunteer assistant coaches RT Ebesu and TJ Yasuhara, the coach’s son. Both have successful baseball backgrounds, and Herb Yasuhara credits them with helping to instill confidence and know-how in the team.
TJ Yasuhara played at Waiakea and Chico State while Ebesu is a graduate of Hilo and Hawaii Pacific, and Segovia said they like to recite a favorite coaching mantra: Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.
“They tell us this is our chance to make it to states, but we have to work hard enough,” Segovia said. “First step would be a winning season. My job out there is to do the best I can to help out my team.”