Tuesday | October 17, 2017
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Wright On: Numbers still add up for Ayala, Pomaikai

“All the years combine, they melt into a dream.”

(“Stella Blue,” Hunter/Garcia)

At a certain point, it all gets reduced to numbers recorded by statisticians.

All the league championships, the county, state and national championships are in lists, somewhere, on websites visited by those who follow senior softball.

For Danny Ayala, architect of all the winning by the Hilo Pomaikai team in the Hawaii Kupuna League — he plays on a separate national tournament team — the numbers keep building as his team moves along. But Ayala is a little like Satchel Paige, or maybe he learned something from Lot’s wife in Gomorrah. Ayala’s gaze is fixed straight ahead, even after winning another Kupuna championship last month, he’s looking toward the next challenge and he only looks back when a reporter nudges.

“It will be tough at Oahu,” Ayala said the other day in a telephone interview on the approaching senior state tournament. “You know, back in the day, the Oahu tams won every year and there were only 20 or so teams that went (to the state championship tournament). Now, I think there are something like 44 or 46 teams involved, so you have to earn anything you get.”

In a nutshell, that’s what Ayala and his team are all about — working to achieve and, as much as possible, staying in the present, dealing with the immediate issues.

It isn’t as easy as you might think from the numerous county championships Pomaikai has won — a number he can’t recall — like the most recent title, last month.

Hilo Pomaikai beat Kohala 15-10 in the championship game, but the path to the title revealed Ayala’s intuition and respect for the opposition. Pomaikai (23-9), finished third in the regular season standings but in the second game it fell to the Punatics (11-20), the sixth place finisher during the season.

“There was a time, maybe in 2001 or 2002 when we won back-to-back (state) championships, that we had a good idea if we could win the game before we played. The competition wasn’t like it is now.

“Today,” he said, “you have to be ready no matter who you play and I have great respect for that Punatic team. We are an older team, we have eight guys who are 70-plus years old and the Punatics are a young, very scrappy team. Before the game, I told our team, ‘We can’t let these guys hang around, they will bite you in the butt.’”

Ayala’s team was 4-0 against the Punatics in league play, but in the tournament, they fell behind early and couldn’t get back in front, losing 12-8 and dropping into the consolation bracket.

“It was a big game and I knew if we won it we were one game away from the championship (game), but we were complacent. After, I said, ‘It’s over, we have to find a way to pick up the pieces.’”

They responded, winning out, claiming another title, thanks in no small part to the addition of a 55-year-old “ringer” Ayala brought to the team last fall. Each team gets one 55-year-old “young guy” and Ayala selected Don Ouderkirk, originally from Kauai, but now working as the fire chief at Hilo International Airport. Ayala saw him play in Kauai, heard he was moving to the Big Island and they made a deal that worked for both of them.

“I used to watch his teams,” Ouderkirk said, “and when he invited me, I thought, ‘Sure, yeah, let’s do that.’

Ouderkirk, a home run hitter, is one of two 55s on the team, so when they play doubleheaders, one plays one game, the other the next. Ouderkirk was in the right place in the championship game, contributing a two-run homer to the victory, but he shrugged off any suggestion he was pivotal to the title.

“It’s an older team,” he said, “we all try to do what we can, but our older players are the ones who carry us, every day. We have an 82-year-old, George Kodani, who is amazing. This guy, despite his age, can really play, we need him out there every game.”

Kodani is a former Honokaa High School basketball player who cherishes the memory of being on the floor in 1952 when the Dragons beat Hilo for the first time. He plays outfield and infield, and will turn 83 in December.

“Wherever they want me to play, I’ll do it,” Kodani said, “I just want support the team and help out if I can.”

Kodani didn’t start playing softball until 1995 and did not have a baseball background growing up, he was simply interested in some fellowship and exercise when he started.

“The whole island played in one league back then,” Kodani said, “today, there’s a lot more competition but we only pay attention to one game at a time.”

Ayala seems to have soaked his crew in that one-at-a-time mantra, including the guy Ayala refers to as “Godzilla.”

“He really powers the ball,” Ayala said of Mark Gomes, 60, who started with Pomaikai just a year ago and has emerged as a long ball specialist. “I call him Godzilla because of his power, I think he had 5 or 6 home runs (in the Kupuna Tournament).”

After five years in the league and two with Ayala, Gomes seems to fit right in.

“It’s a great group to be a part of,” Gomes said. “George (Kodani) is my idol, and I’ve told him that. It’s hard for me to even imagine how good he is, still, at 82, and as I’ve told him, I don’t know if I’ll even be able to walk if I make it to 82.”

When asked about his own contributions, those long ball exploits, Gomes suddenly has few words to say.

“It maybe happens when the breeze is blowing right, I guess,” he said. “Everybody contributes on this team, that’s what makes it fun to be a part of.”

Another aspect of senior softball that may be lost to the outside world, is that it isn’t some short 6-week season. It goes on and on. When one championship is won, it’s time to practice for the next one as Pomaikai will do this week on Tuesday and Thursday in preparation for the state tournament on Oahu.

Can they win another state title? Gomes wouldn’t bite on that one.

“I don’t look at it that way, none of us do, really,” he said. “Who do we play first? Let’s see if we can play well in that game, if we do, we might just win and then it’s on to the next one.

“There’s no point in thinking about winning something in the future,” he said, “if you can’t win the game you have in front of you. We won’t go thinking about winning a state championship, we will go thinking about winning the first game.”

After all these years, it’s a methodology for success that keeps paying off for Danny Ayala and Hilo Pomaikai.

 

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