By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Long-time best friends Kean Wong and Chayce Kaaua not only share the same habit of working hard, but also a similar skill set of versatility, giving the University of Hawaii baseball team lots of options when they arrive in 2014.
Wong, a Waiakea senior, and Kaaua, a Hilo senior, signed their national letters of intent with the Rainbows on Wednesday. They hand-delivered the letters to UH coach Mike Trapasso on Sunday during the UH baseball camp at Wong Stadium.
“It means a lot to me. It’s always been my dream to play for Hawaii and the home crowd, and follow in my brother Kolten’s footsteps,” Wong said. “His advice to me is to work hard and if it’s your dream to play pro ball, UH is one step below where you want to be.”
It’s the same feeling for Kaaua, who was on the 2011 Hilo Senior League World Series championship ballclub, along with Wong, UH freshman and 2012 Waiakea graduate Quintin Torres-Costa and UH verbal commit and Waiakea junior Kodi Medeiros.
“I get to continue what I love to do and that’s play baseball,” Kaaua said. “I’ve always wanted to play for Hawaii. It’s close, so my family can watch the games, and I get to go with my friends.”
Last season, Wong played catcher for Waiakea, which pocketed the Division I state championship over Baldwin. Kaaua was at shortstop for Hilo, the Big Island Interscholastic Federation runner-up. Both have made appearances all over the diamond, each playing catcher, second base, shortstop, third base and outfield.
As catchers, they’ve been clocked in the 1.8 to 1.9 second range on their throws to second base. Kaaua’s preference is catcher or shortstop while Wong’s favorite position is somewhere in the infield, his projected position on the pro level.
When he attended the Arizona Fall Classic, a high-caliber recruiting showcase attended by college coaches and Major League Baseball teams, pro scouts told Wong they liked him at catcher, second base or third base. He batted 7 for 10 with a pair of doubles. The First-Year Player MLB draft starts June 6.
“Coach Trap told me I’d play somewhere in the infield,” Wong said.
Kaaua’s versatility will also lead to open auditions at different positions when he gets to UH, where he plans to major in fire science, like Wong.
“At first, he said catcher, then infield and now outfield,” Kaaua said. “We’ll see when I get up there.”
The scholarship for both is something earned on the backbone of hard work. They showed talent at a young age; each gave UH a verbal commitment after their freshman seasons. But they’ve taken to sharpening their skills as a full-time occupation.
Every day, Wong runs and pulls a sled to work on his speed. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, his infield coach Mel Jardine drives in from Honokaa to refine his glove work.
That’s just the beginning. The day is still young. There’s more work waiting.
From 6 to 7 p.m., he’s at his dad Kaha Wong’s hitting school on Railroad Avenue to take countless swings. Then he goes next door to Aloha Fitness to lift weights for an hour. It’s helped because he’s 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds of athletic muscle.
It’s a life that has become routine, like brushing teeth, an essential part of the day.
“I’m motivated to do that, to get stronger, so when I go to UH or wherever I go I’ll be ready,” Wong said. “My brother is my motivation. He set the bar. I’m trying to get close. It’s a lot of hard work, waking up 4:30 in the morning. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Like his workout brother, Kaaua follows a similar path.
He runs and lifts every day and attends Kaha Wong’s batting cage three times a week. The weight work has served him well. Kaaua has the build of a pitbull; he’s 5 feet 9, and 180 pounds of compact muscle.
“The lifting gets me strong and helps with my bat speed and power,” Kaaua said. “It helps make me a better player. My motivation is I’m doing something that I love and knowing that I can continue to play a game that I love.
“We’ve always talked about playing for Hawaii before we got the scholarship. When the day finally came, I couldn’t believe it.”
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