By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Hilo doesn’t look much different from the darkhorse ballclub that made a magical run at the Division I state baseball tournament last season, finishing in third place after taking down a few big names.
The Vikings took the long road, too. They had to rally from a four-run deficit with one out and edged Campbell 6-5 in a play-in game, earning a spot in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
Their hot streak continued in the first round against Punahou, which won seven state titles in a row from 2004 to ’10 and thumped the Viks 7-2 in the preseason. Kian Kurokawa pitched with guile all game long and scattered a seven-hitter in a 5-3 upset victory.
In the quarterfinals against top seed Kailua, Hilo managed only two hits (Chayce Kaaua went 2 for 3) but Nick Fukunaga persevered through six innings, not once retiring the side, and Jordan Tagawa got the save in a 3-2 win.
Baldwin, which lost to Waiakea for the championship, capitalized on a pair of Hilo errors and scored five runs in the second inning and pulled out a 6-2 win in the semifinals. Despite the loss, there were a few highlights: Jodd Carter fired two scoreless innings out of the bullpen, and Tagawa provided 3 1/3 innings of one-run relief.
In the third-place game, the Vikings beat Pearl City 9-8 behind another hitting clinic by Kaaua, who went 2 for 3 with two RBIs and finished with a .462 batting average (6 for 13) at Les Murakami Stadium, his future home field.
In an interesting side note, Hilo ran out of pitching against the Buffanblu in that preseason loss. Pitching depth has turned into a strength, especially with the experience of several strong efforts in high-pressure state games.
Kaaua, who signed with Hawaii, right-handers Kurokawa and Fukunaga, outfielder Tyler Higa-Gonsalves, and third baseman Elijah Cruz are returning senior starters. Outfielders Drew Kell and Carter, and second baseman Micah Kaaukai are returning junior starters.
With basketball import Jalen Carvalho, a left-handed bat who could fill in at first base, and ace pitcher Kurokawa on the mound, that fills eight of Hilo’s nine spots on the field. Kaaua could play at catcher (his projected position at UH), shortstop (his position last year) or anywhere else.
Carvalho also pitches, adding another arm to a deep bullpen, which includes Tagawa, Carter and Conrad Kauffman. They are all juniors, offering a bridge after starting pitchers Kurokawa and Fukunaga graduate.
Hilo coach Tony DeSa said Kody Kaniho, a senior right-hander, is on the team, despite not being listed on the roster for the Hilo High/Stanley Costales Sr. Memorial Tournament, which moved to Konawaena High on Friday because of the wet weather. The Vikings lost to Kamehameha-Kapalama 6-5. In other games, Pac-Five beat Konawaena 15-4 and Campbell beat Kamehameha-Maui 6-0.
Pitching depth will be helpful during the Big Island Interscholastic Federation season, which scraps the travel-cost-saving East-West format for the introduction of the “1.5” round-robin schedule, playing the island-side foes twice.
Each game carries equal importance through the 15-game season. The BIIF regular-season champions for both Division I and II earn state berths. The league will likely get two state spots for both divisions.
Waiakea has won the last two BIIF titles, but returns only three starters in catcher/infielder Kean Wong, pitcher/outfielder Kodi Medeiros and second baseman Alika Guillermo. The pitching staff’s depth will be tested near the end of March when there’s three games that week.
Hilo has far, far more depth — especially in the pitching department, the wheels on the bus that frequently drive a team’s journey — but not the burden of having a bull’s-eye on its back, according to coach DeSa.
“We’re looking forward to having a good year,” he said. “We always know that the road to the title goes through Waiakea every year.”
For history’s sake, it should be noted that Hilo interrupted Waiakea’s dynasty with two BIIF titles of its own in 2009 and ’10, when Warren Arakaki was the head coach.
In any case, basketball’s loss was Hilo’s baseball gain. With the Viks sitting at home for the Division I state basketball tournament, that allowed hoopsters Kurokawa, Carter and Carvalho back to the business of baseball a week earlier.
That gives the indispensable Kurokawa, who started against Campbell and Punahou last year, more time to round himself into pitching shape with the BIIF season right around the corner. Hilo opens at home Saturday, March 9. Carter is still on the shelf with a leg injury and, with fingers crossed, expected back in three or four weeks.
Prior to their two showdowns, Hilo and Waiakea play either Ka‘u or Pahoa in the first games of the week, offering both Division I ballclubs the opportunity to align their aces and bullpens. The rematch, which will likely carry a lot of weight, is the last game of the regular season.
The Viks lost catcher Koa Matson, first baseman Keenan Nishioka and outfielder Randall Iha to graduation. They provided more than basehits and sound defense. DeSa praised their intangibles.
“Those are tough holes to fill,” DeSa said. “The three seniors gave us great leadership, defense, offense and all-around play. They’ll be tough to replace. They paved the way. We need guys to step up.
“But I like how we’re carrying over from last year, the way the kids play. They play hard with a lot of intensity.”
The self-described underdogs had a lot of magical moments last season. The Viks won’t sneak up on anyone, again, with opponents starting someone other than their ace. And the best thing going for them is there’s absolutely no pressure, at least from their perspective.
“We all know the title goes through Waiakea,” DeSa repeated. “We’re just going to stay humble and play it one game at a time.”
The final day of the tournament will be held at either Wong Stadium or Honokaa, depending on the weather.
If conditions are playable at Wong Stadium, then four games are scheduled: Kamehameha-Maui vs. Hilo, 10 a.m.; Waiakea vs. Kamehameha-Kapalama, 12:30 p.m.; Kamehameha-Hawaii vs. Campbell, 3 p.m.; Hilo vs. Pac-Five, 5:30 p.m.
If games are moved to Honokaa, then there will be two games: Kamehameha-Oahu vs. campbell, 11 a.m.; Kamehameha-Hawaii vs. Pac-Five, 1:30 p.m.