Warriors hope freshman can fill Wong's shoes
By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
For the last four years, the Kamehameha softball team had the best of both worlds in one complete-package player — Kiani Wong, an ace pitcher and an offensive threat, who has moved on to the Rainbow Wahine's roster.
She led the Warriors to a pair of Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II championships and three trips to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament. In last season's league title game, she fired a one-hitter and belted two doubles in a 5-1 victory over Kohala, which also lost its ace pitcher, Chyler Imai, who's playing volleyball at Western New Mexico.
Wong is gone but a lot of her teammates are back for their senior seasons. There's first baseman Elizabeth Kia, second baseman Janell Cameros, third baseman Jaylan Shiroma, outfielders Codi Kualii, Lehua McGuire and Namele Naipo-Arsiga. Junior catcher Gayla Ha-Cabebe, the No. 3 hitter and top bat back, brings additional experience as well as sophomore Samantha Simmons, the No. 2 pitcher last year.
In the category of Timing is Everything, stepping into Wong's shoes is 5-foot-8 freshman Mykala Tokunaga, another dual threat. She'll draw the start and be somewhere in the lineup, pulling double duty today in the BIIF season opener at Honokaa.
"She has potential and when you get a player like that your team can be good for four years," coach Gary Ah said.
If the Kamehameha ace pitcher's last name sounds familiar it should. Her dad, Mike Tokunaga, owns S. Tokunaga Stoe. He can't make the game because he'll be working at the 93rd anniversary store-wide sale today. At least, mom Peggy will be at the game. (The store was founded by Mike's grandfather Sumie Tokunaga.)
Tokunaga started playing baseball at 8 years old. Over the summer, she was on the Hilo All-Stars Junior (ages 14-15) baseball team. She only started playing softball three years ago, and took up pitching a year later.
She takes hitting and pitching lessons from Kaha Wong, Kiani's father. Tokunaga also works out with Kiani when she's home during college breaks. Tokunaga pointed out that playing baseball, and training with both Wongs have shaped her game.
"Coach Kaha taught me all the basics, how to throw harder," Tokunaga said. "He pushes me to use my legs as a hitter because girls don't have that upper body strength. Playing with the boys was good for me because they're more aggressive. Kiani has helped me a lot. She's a wonderful example as a hard worker. She's an awesome fielder, pitcher and hitter."
Like Tokunaga, Ha-Cabebe is a full-time softball player. But basketball was her first sport. However, she eventually gravitated toward softball, which has stuck to her like glue.
"I became really committed and started going to all kinds of camps," she said. "It was not just fun, but something I had to do. If not, I would feel that something was missing. I joined the (Nobu Yamauchi) RBI team and saw the competition on the mainland and pushed myself to be at that level.
"I'm hoping to bring positive encouragement and leadership to the team. If one player is down, that will bring the whole team down. We need to stick together. You can't win a game alone."
Good pitching always helps. Ha-Cabebe believes the Warriors have a gem in Tokunaga. Unlike baseball pitchers, softball pitchers don't put as much strain on their arm and can pitch often.
"For being a freshman, she's got a lot of speed. She's got a variety of pitches," Ha-Cabebe said. "She's not as fast as Kiani, but a lot of girls are thrown off by the way her ball moves. She has a different kind of spin. What works best for us is keeping hitters off-balanced. I think the team will be pretty good. The underclassmen are really experienced, and we have a strong defense and have strengthened our hitting."
Kau‘i Martin is another freshmen with the potential to make an impact. She'll start at shortstop. Kekai Wong Yuen, another freshman, will be a utility player. Martin, Wong Yuen and Tokunaga were part of Kamehameha's undefeated junior varsity team. The JV season finished Wednesday, and Martin cracked a homer against Hilo High.
"Hitters one to nine will be good," Ahu said. "The seniors have got to step up or there are ninth graders who will take their place. Kau‘i is a natural shortstop and even her hitting is good. She's got a good stride to the ball. She just needs to be patient. Kekai is our second-string catcher. We'll probably use her in the outfield. She's kind of aggressive, more aggressive than some of the seniors. It looks like she wants to play.
"We'll start the seniors and hopefully they'll pick up their game. We're more aggressive this year. We're practicing on throwing out runners at home plate and going from first to third. This year with all that experience we'll be all right."
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