MARION, Iowa – The coaches and players from the Hawaii Elite 2G Baseball Club that are here this weekend for the 19th annual PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship spent a good chunk of the summer traveling from one end of the U.S. mainland to the other.
They’ve played competitive baseball and soaked-in the local culture at Perfect Game tournaments in Arizona, Georgia and Texas, learning a lot about their fellow citizens in a country so expansive it bends the mind; they also learned a lot about themselves.
And now the Hawaii Elite 2G is in Eastern Iowa where they’ll play most of their games surrounded by browning, ready-to-harvest cornfields at the Prospect Meadows Sports Complex. The setting provides a backdrop unlike most, if not all, of the players have ever experienced before and they’re embracing the environment.
“It’s a lot of fun; it’s definitely new for us,” highly-regarded 2022 infielder Aiva Arquette from Kailua told PG. “It’s a cool experience coming out here to someplace we don’t know. Some of us never even heard of it, you know, so it’s definitely a brand new experience. But’s it’s going to be fun.”
While at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship this weekend, these high school seniors from the Hawaiian Islands are going to be tested to a higher degree than they’ve been tested all summer. There’s a lot on the line for all 82 entrants with the event champion receiving a paid entry to the prestigious WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., October 7-11.
When asked how on earth this team with its base of operations in Honolulu ended up here near the geographical center of the Lower 48 – five time zones separate Hawaii and Iowa – Hawaii Elite 2G head coach Brandon Toro was quick with his reply.
“Two words: Perfect Game. Perfect Game is what brings us here,” he said. “Luckily for us we have a Hawaii connection with Kaimana (Souza-Paaluhi)...and the opportunity to compete for something like a bid to the Jupiter tournament is also big. It’s Perfect Game and what it stands for baseball-wise (with) high-level excellence and all of that.”
Kaimana Souza-Paaluhi is a native of Hawaii who works with PG as an assistant tournament director. He moved to the mainland after high school to continue his baseball and academic careers at Kansas and ultimately at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.
He knew that this Hawaii Elite 2G team had been playing – and playing well – on the mainland throughout the summer and when he realized he was familiar with a couple of the team’s coaches, he started making some calls.
“They were going to head to a Texas qualifier which was this past weekend and I told them that this is one of the biggest tournaments in all of the Midwest (and) that this would be a great opportunity for all the kids to come out here,” Souza-Paaluhi said. “There’s going to be all these scouts and that it would be a great opportunity for them being so far from home in Hawaii.”
There are seven prospects (six 2022s) here with the Hawaii Elite 2G that have already made their commitments to D-I schools but at least that many more are undecided.
Nationally No. 464-ranked infielder Aiva Arquette is a Cal Poly commit. Top-500s right-hander/outfielder Parker Grant (Cal State Northridge), left-hander Kaena Kiakona (Rice), outfielder/left-hander Keoni Painter (BYU), catcher/first baseman Beau Sylvester (Washington) and right-hander Zacary Tenn (Washington) have also made their commitments; top-500 2023 middle-infielder Elijah Ickes is committed to become a Hawaii Rainbow Warrior.
There are several others rostered who were key contributors during the long summer of fun, including catcher/infielders Noah Hata and Kodey Shojinaga; infielder Jonah Velasco, corner-infielders Xander Sielken and Evan Elarionoff and right-handers Kodie Ecks Hanawahine, Jett Ah Sam and Baron Keola Yim.
“I’m excited and I know our team is excited,” Painter told PG. “We’ve heard about (this tournament) as the summer was ending and I’ve just been excited to come up here and go play. I know this team is ready to play and we’re all just excited to be here.”
And make no mistake, this is a team that proved it can compete at a heavyweight event on the level of the WWBA Kernels Championship. The Elite 2G went a combined 15-1-1 overall at three tournaments in Georgia and Texas showing they not only belong on these platforms they can also win on them while going head-to-head with some of the mainland’s best.
Want proof? They won the championship at the PG 17u Central Elite Championship in Tomball, Texas, with Parker Grant taking home the MV Player honors and Zacary Tenn being named MV Pitcher. Grant went 6-for-8 (.750) with three doubles, a home run, four RBI, six runs and an .833 OBP; Tenn didn’t allow a hit, struck-out seven and walked one in 3 1/3 innings pitched.
The Hawaii Elite 2G were co-champs at the PG 17u Battle of the Southeast in Atlanta, sharing the title with the nationally prominent East Cobb Astros 17u (the championship game was rained-out). Keoni Painter collected the MVP award at that one, going 8-for-16 (.500) with a double, a triple, six RBI and nine runs.
The competition they’ll face this weekend represents a step-up only because there isn’t a potential opponent in the 82-team Kernels’ field that will fail to take advantage of any opening that allows them to secure the victory – they’re just that good.
“We all watch YouTube, we’re all online on Perfect Game and other information websites so we know the teams that are out there. You start to even know all the players because information is so available to us now” Toro said. “I know that individually these guys want to see if they match-up. Through the success this summer we know as a team, as a state when we bring the best to the mainland we’re going to compete and we’re going to match-up.”
Toro acknowledged that in a small population state like Hawaii there is always going to be differences in the talent level of each new prep class that passes through. Saying that, he was quick to add that he considers the class of 2022 to be “very, very strong” and that made him even more determined to make sure they got the necessary exposure in front of scouts while also competing against the country’s best.
The travel experiences these teen-aged prospects are enjoying are extremely valuable when it comes to not only their development as young ballplayers but also as young men. They are literally thousands of miles away from home and while some of the parents made the trips to the mainland over the summer, these kids were learning how to live on their own, much like what they will encounter in college. And those college choices are becoming increasingly far-flung.
“Because we live in Hawaii, the mindset was always West Coast, Pac-12, especially for our Division I-type players,” Toro said. “Now we see guys getting committed to schools in the South, schools in the Midwest and maybe even schools on the East Coast. That was always a goal of our club...and having it open up to the rest of the (county) instead of just the West Coast for us, that’s the biggest value so far that I’ve seen from us traveling all over.”
With this roster, he noted, almost half of them have committed to Division I schools but it’s a simple reality that the D-I level isn’t for everyone. And that’s OK. There are plenty of opportunities for those who are very solid high school players to find their landing spot at D-II, D-III, NAIA or Juco programs where they’ll prosper both athletically and academically.
“I’m always telling them, hey, the next level for everyone is different,” Toro said. “We’re trying to get you to the highest (level), whatever that means for you.”
Toro’s college baseball experiences are noteworthy, having started out at Cal-Berkeley before finishing his career at Texas Tech. He feels fortunate to have lived and played on both the West Coast and in the South but in this day and age with travel ball, his Hawaii Elite 2G players are getting a taste of that life even before they head off to college. Iowa is just one more stop on the amateur baseball highway.
“Every state we go to is a little bit different; the baseball is always pure – it’s always good baseball so that doesn’t change,” he said. “This particular tournament with it being part of the Kernels Foundation, it’s special in its own right. I think it’s something that we’re going to try … to see if this is something we can make an annual thing.”
Added Painter: “It’s definitely a good experience for me because playing in Hawaii is totally different than playing on the mainland. We’re able to come over here and show what Hawaii talent is all about and how we play our game; show our talent from back on the islands. It’s definitely a good experience for us.”
School is underway back home, of course, and keeping on top of their classwork is a big challenge for these high-schoolers. Many of them are taking their taking their classes remotely while they’re on the road and everyone from school administrators to teachers to parents are doing everything they can to make sure no player falls behind while they’re enjoying this opportunity.
“Because of travel nowadays, I think the big thing for parents is trust,” Toro said. “I really, really appreciate the parents trusting me and trusting the other coaches and basically (allowing) their sons to travel halfway across the mainland...I just really appreciate the trust that the parents have in me and our coaches and the program.”
The only thing that really matters to the young guys wearing the Hawaii Elite 2G uniforms, of course, are the games. They’ll be facing elite players from elite programs such as the Cangelosi Sparks, Minnesota Blizzard Elite, Canes Illinois, Elite Baseball Training, GRB Rays, Iowa Select, Nebraska Prospects, the Reds Scout Team and on and on and on.
“Our mindset is definitely to come here to win; that’s the way it is for every tournament that we play in,” Arquette said. “We’re a group of kids from Hawaii who came here to compete and that’s all we need to do; it’s all we want to do.
“This experience is going to be great. It’s a chance to play against kids we’ve never played (against) before, brand new competition, so it’ll be fun...We’re winners; we’re competitors. We like to win and we want to win, first of all.”
His teammate Painter agrees: “I still feel like people think we’re not very good or that we’re underdogs still. It makes me think that we’re here to prove something and that we can play with the best of the best...This is a business trip for us. We’re having fun, too, but this is a business trip for us and we came here to win.”
PG’s Souza-Paaluhi knows first-hand how important proving yourself and knocking that chip off of your shoulder is to these guys because as a 2016 grad of Milliani (Hawaii) High School he’s walked in their shoes. And that’s why he went out of his way to bring the Hawaii Elite 2G Baseball Club to an Eastern Iowa venue where they can be seen by baseball decision-makers.
“I feel like if I can have an impact on these kids and have them be able to get out here and be seen by these college coaches...this would be the best opportunity for them,” Souza-Paaluhi said. “I feel like that if we can get this going it can start a trend for the future of Hawaii baseball and let that grow even bigger into the States, as well.”