By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Last December, Kupono Decker’s Christmas present from his parents was a two-day trip to Oahu, but there was a catch.
There was no relaxing under the sun on the soft sand of Waikiki’s beaches. It was strictly a business trip.
The Kamehameha senior right-handed pitcher/shortstop worked hard at the Trosky Hawaiian High School College Camp.
It was his first showcase. He had never played in front of college coaches before, hoping to land a scholarship. To complicate matters, Decker was coming off a significant arm injury.
Not quite fully recovered, he still impressed San Diego Christian enough to receive a scholarship that covers roughly 60 percent of the $24,000 tuition. The NAIA school was one win short of reaching the College World Series.
“During the whole camp, they were talking to my father (Hale Decker), and said they were going to offer me something,” Decker said. “I was pretty surprised to get a scholarship. My dream came true to play college ball.
“I asked my parents one time to help fulfill my dream of playing college ball and send me to a showcase. I’ve never been to a showcase before. I typed in Hawaii showcases and it led me to the Trosky one.”
During his final Big Island Interscholastic Federation season, Decker went 6-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 37 1/3 innings. He allowed 23 hits and 31 walks and struck out 28 in making the all-BIIF first team in Division II. He batted .222 with six RBIs in 54 at-bats.
At the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament, Decker pitched one-hit ball over five innings to spark Kamehameha over Kapaa 2-1 in the first round.
But before that, he had to work hard to get his pitching arm back into shape.
After his junior year, Decker went out for Senior League (ages 14-16), and in the first game he suffered an ulnar collateral ligament injury. UCL reconstruction, replacing the ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in body, is known as Tommy John surgery.
“It was last May and I was pitching when I heard something pop,” Decker said. “I was actually going to have Tommy John surgery. But I just rested it and it fully healed. In December, I was throwing on the side with my father at Wong Stadium. Every day I was going out to Wong Stadium and working hard.
“I wasn’t throwing that hard at the camp. They clocked me topping out at 83 mph. They really liked my glove, being in the middle infield and my defensive skills. I’ll probably play both ways over there.”
His dad coached the 2003 Hilo Senior League team that captured the World Series, starring Myles Ioane, Matt Haasenritter and Owen Otsuka. As the team’s bat boy, Decker had a front-row view watching his three favorite ballplayers, and soaking up unforgettable memories.
“That team was full of heart, and they taught me how to play the game of baseball and have fun at the same time,” said Decker, who will graduate Saturday with a 3.0 grade-point average. “Those three were the team captains. Owen was the team leader, and he would do whatever for the team. That’s what I liked about him. At Waiakea, he a shortstop. But he was the catcher because the team needed someone to take control.”
His mom, Ernell, works at Clinical Laboratories and his dad is the head custodian at Hilo Intermediate. Decker’s dad is a role model in more ways than one.
“He took a second job cleaning at Spencer’s Gym, working to fund my college,” said Decker, who plans to major in business administration. “It’ll be straight business when I go to college.
“My dad was my coach from T-ball to my freshman year of high school. I have to give all the credit to my father. He taught me everything I know. I still remember, when I was a little kid, like 4 years old, he told his older players, ‘No be shame to throw the ball to him. He can catch.’
“My dad hit me a lot of grounders. H was always taking me to the field and I was traveling with his teams. I pretty much grew up around the ballpark. What I got from him was no matter what you do in life, you have to work hard and put your mind to it to be as successful as you can be.”
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