By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The local baseball talent keeps finding next-stop homes on the college level, through the Big Island Baseball Program, which grew because of Keala Wong’s desire to help others.
After Kolten Wong landed a scholarship to the University of Hawaii as a 2008 Kamehameha graduate, with assistance from his dad Kaha Wong, his mom wanted others to field the same opportunity.
Besides his Big Island Wooden Bat League, which started in 2006, Kaha Wong started taking players from his hitting school to showcases before persuading college coaches to scout local players here in their own back yard.
From 2011, Kaha Wong has helped land at least 10 scholarships a year, even for players who received nominal All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation recognition such as honorable mention.
For the 2013-14 school class, eight players have college offers on the table, raising Wong’s total to over 50 players.
The next National Junior College Athletic Association letter of intent signing date is Jan. 15. (The BIIF season starts in March.)
Kamehameha senior outfielders Matt Chun and Jordan Hirae have merit and academic scholarships to Puget Sound, a Division III school in Tacoma, Wash., where 2006 Waiakea graduate Kainoa Correa is the recruiting coordinator.
A pair of teammates, seniors Makoa Rosario, a catcher, and Chay Toson, an outfielder, snagged junior college scholarships. Rosario is headed to Central Arizona while Toson is set for Arizona Western.
Hilo seniors Micah Kaaukai and Isaiah “Beeno” Banasan are continuing the BIIF-to-Luna College pipeline. Bronson Pulgados, a 2013 Kamehameha graduate, is already at Luna, a Juco in New Mexico.
Jodd Carter, a Hilo senior outfielder, signed with the University of Hawaii in November. He has a dual commitment with Central Arizona, as a backup plan for more playing time.
The biggest BIIF-to-juco produce was 2011 Hilo graduate Ridge Hoopii-Haslam, who starred for two seasons with the Rough Riders, and landed at Oklahoma Baptist, an NAIA school ranked 11th in the preseason poll.
On a recent workout day, the seven senior scholarship players, Pulgados as well as fellow 2013 graduates Tyler Higa-Gonsalves (Hilo/Luna), Chayce Kaaua (Hilo/UH), Chad Teshima (Kamehameha/Phoenix College) expressed gratitude to the Wong family for their scholarships.
Hilo junior Noah Serrao and Kamehameha junior Kobi Candaroma, members of the Big Island Baseball Program, also worked out at Wong Stadium.
Konawaena senior Zane Gray also received a scholarship to Eastern Arizona, raising Kaha Wong’s total to eight scholarship players for the 2013-14 senior class. His teammate and 2013 Kona graduate Ryan Torres-Torioka got a scholarship to Hawaii Pacific.
Keala Wong passed away on Dec. 19 after a four-year battle with cancer. She was 47.
“My mom always wanted to have people at our house, basically take care of them like they were her own kids,” Kolten Wong said. “She wanted to make sure everyone had a good time, and all the kids were having fun with each other.”
Last month, when she was in a hospital bed on Oahu, Keala encouraged her husband Kaha Wong to fly back to Hilo for a showcase.
“It was important for her to help kids get to college,” Kaha said. “People were asking me, ‘What are you doing here?’ But that’s what Keala was like. She wanted me to be there for the kids.
“When I was offered the UH hitting job, she was the one who sat down with me and said I have to help the kids here and show the parents that support. That was more important to her. When we used to go to the World Series or Little League trips on the mainland, she was the one to get the parents to relax and gather together. Sometimes, some parents would sit by themselves. She was the one who made them feel part of the family.”
Last season, Hilo captured its first BIIF Division I championship since 2010, relying on a lot of senior pitching and big bats: Kian Kurokawa, Kody Kaniho and Nic Fukunaga on the mound, and Kaaua, Elijah Cruz, and Higa-Gonsalves at the dish.
Carter (.594 batting average, .683 on-base) was voted to the All-BIIF Division I first team while Kaaukai got honorable mention.
Banasan, who wasn’t recognized, likely made the biggest jump as far as muscular self-improvement. The outfielder weighed 155 pounds last season. He’s now a chiseled 167 pounds.
He and Kaaukai celebrated their scholarship offers together, and put pen to paper during the early signing period in December.
“Micah and I signed at the same place with our families, at Cronies,” Banasan said. “It’ll be a good experience to go there with friends.”
Kaaukai, a fleet-footed infielder, is not the only one playing for somebody who’ll be forever missed. His dad, Paul Kaaukai, died before the Vikings’ trip to the state tournament in 2012, when they upset Punahou in the first round, and eventually took third place.
“I’m pretty stoked to go to Luna and have people there,” Kaaukai said. “Without coach Kaha, Kolten and the rest of his family I wouldn’t be in the position where I am today.”
Carter broke his last fibula last year. He’s 100 percent healthy. The speedy outfielder is also part of UH’s 10-player recruiting class for 2015, which includes two other outfield recruits. One future teammate and competitor for playing time will be Kaaua (.320, .575 on-base), who made the All-BIIF first team.
“I have to thank Kolten and Kean, too,” Carter said. “Because of them, they opened a lot of eyes that Hawaii has talent.”
One thing the four Kamehameha players remember is Keala Wong cheering for both teams when Waiakea played against the private-school Warriors. Another good memory is the family atmosphere at the Wong household.
Rosario only joined Kaha Wong’s program four years ago, but he still recalls the first time he was welcomed into the family.
“The first time I met Aunty Keala it was like she knew me,” he said. “She gave me warmth and it was like I was part of the family already.”
Kamehameha won its second straight BIIF Division II title last season, and finished runner-up at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament, losing to Maryknoll 14-0.
At least, the Warriors return several key hitters in Hirae (.321, .435 on-base, 14 RBIs) and Toson (.283, .368 on-base). Both were named to the All-BIIF first team last season. Chun and Rosario made honorable mention.
Chun carries a 3.5 grade-point average while Hirae has a 4.0 GPA. Both plan to major in exercise science at Puget Sound, where they’ll join Kurokawa for the 2015 season.
“I’ve been playing for Coach Kaha since I was in the fifth grade,” Hirae said. “I have to thank coach Kaha, Kolten and the whole family. They were always trying to get us better.
“Hopefully, we can do good. We’ve got the majority of the seniors back. But what matters is if we have team chemistry. We just have to go out and play hard.”
Chun picked up the sport late, worked hard to break into the starting lineup and landed a scholarship to a top-notch academic school in the popular Northwest Conference, where Pacific University is a favorite choice for local graduates.
“Coach Kaha gave me that dedication and taught me to work hard,” Chun said. “He teaches life skills, too. He’s opened doors and I’m thankful for that.
“Nothing is guaranteed for the BIIF season. We still have to prove ourselves in the BIIF.”
Toson is a constant regular at the Wong house. His scholarship is another connection to his second family.
“Getting the scholarship is more than special,” he said. “I’ll be thankful every day. I’m dedicating my senior season to Aunty Keala. She was like a second mom to me. I’d always stay at Kean’s house.
“I remember that even at our games she would cheer for everyone at the game. She never took sides, even though Kean was her son. She treated all of us like we were one of her sons.”