By JOE FERRARO
Often glued to the television along with his grandfather, a young Jarett Kitaoka dreamed big as he watched the University of Hawaii’s baseball team.
“J.J. would say, ‘Grandpa, I’m going to be the first Kona boy to play at Manoa,’” Kitaoka’s father, Warren, recalled.
Kitaoka’s grandfather, Noboru “King” Kitaoka, knew a thing or two about high-level baseball. Playing with a group of Big Island all-stars at Hilo’s Hoolulu Stadium in 1954, King competed against a N.Y. Yankees barnstorming team that included the likes of Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Bill Skowron.
So when Jarett talked confidently about playing at the next level, King pounded home one simple point: It won’t be easy.
“His grandpa told told him, ‘You better work hard,’” Warren Kitaoka said.
Apparently, Jarett, now a senior at Konawaena, put in the necessary hard work as the Rainbows offered him a roster spot in December. A month later, he verbally committed to Hawaii and started living his dream of becoming the first West Hawaii baseball player to land at UH.
“I’m pretty sure every kid in Hawaii — their dream is to play for UH-Manoa,’’ Kitaoka said.
Kitaoka never abandoned that dream even though the University of Northern Colorado, which plays in Division I in Greeley, Colo., and Eastern Arizona College, a junior college in Thatcher, Ariz., offered him full-ride scholarships. Holy Names University, Puget Sound and Arizona Western also expressed interest.
The Rainbows did not have scholarship money to offer Kitaoka when they gave him a roster spot, but that doesn’t classify him as a walk-on.
Colleges that have only offered roster spots to players in the past have often awarded scholarships in the following school year, and Kitaoka could be in the same boat.
Scholarship money or not, going to Hawaii was always a slam-dunk decision for Kitaoka.
As an underclassman at Konawaena, it appeared he was following in the footsteps of father Warren, a former pitcher at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.
In his sophomore season, Kitaoka flourished, going 5-0 and pitching five complete games for a Wildcats team that won its first Big Island Interscholastic Federation baseball title since 1972. The following season, he helped pitch Konawaena to a runner-up finish in the BIIF Division II tournament.
However, Hawaii was interested in Kitaoka as an infielder, and the Rainbows directly expressed that interest at a baseball camp Big Island hitting instructor Kaha Wong coordinated at Wong Stadium in December. There, more than 60 high school baseball players showcased their skills in front of representatives from 18 colleges. After the showcase, Hawaii assistant coach Chad Konishi offered Kitaoka a roster spot on the Rainbows’ team.
“I was excited, but it was humbling at the same time,’’ Kitaoka said.
And he thought about King, who died in 2007.
“I think about those times when we were sitting in front of the TV watching, always talking about it.”
Going by what Wong told him, Kitaoka said the Rainbows, who are 12-33 this season, tabbed him as a second baseman — he has played shortstop and second base in high school — and were more impressed with his hitting.
Kitaoka certainly proved productive at the plate this season, hitting a robust .432 with four doubles, 23 RBIs and 21 runs scored going into Konawaena’s 3-2 loss to Kapaa in Saturday’s Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament fifth-place game.
On the mound, Kitaoka went 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA this season.
Kitaoka said the subject of playing time never surfaced in his conversation with Konishi. For the time being, Kitaoka is focused on improving in every facet of the game, and he’ll have a great opportunity to do so before he starts college.
In the summer, he will play for the Hawaii Island Movers — a collection of college baseball players that will travel to Japan and compete against other collegiate teams.
As for his collegiate career, Kitaoka hopes his performance can create opportunities for other West Hawaii players.
Kitaoka expressed gratitude for the guidance and knowledge he has received from coaches throughout the years, from former Konawaena coaches Lloyd Fujino and Cody Maeda to current coach Dave Distel and the rest of his staff.
Then there’s Wong, who has taken Kitaoka and other Big Island high school baseball players to various elite tournaments and showcases on the mainland. Kitaoka played for Wong on a Hilo all-star team that won the Senior League World Series in 2011.
“It wasn’t just for me, it’s for the community,’’ Kitaoka said of playing for Hawaii. “I want to open up the gates, just like (former Kamehameha-Hawaii baseball star) Kolten Wong did for all of us — be someone the kids can look up to and come for help.”