GOODYEAR, Ariz. – They came to the Valley of the Sun from the Big Island of Hawaii, right around two dozen strong, divided into two teams and overseen by one of the most prominent and recognizable names in the recent history of Hawaiian baseball. And they didn’t go unnoticed.
At the conclusion of pool-play Saturday night at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass), the two teams from Big Island Baseball – Big Island Baseball Blue and Big Island Baseball – had posted a combined 5-1 record. At 3-0, Big Island Baseball Blue captured its pool championship and entered Sunday’s 20-team playoff field as the No. 9 seed. Big Island Baseball’s 2-1 record wasn’t good enough to advance.
Not too many people associated with the other 74 teams in the 76-team field knew much about these Big Island Baseball entrants before the tournament started on Friday. Most, however, knew of Big Island Baseball's founder and head coach, Kaha Wong, a respected instructor in Hilo, Hawaii, and the father of professional players Kolten and Kean Wong.
Wong felt it was important to get some of his top players from the island of Hawaii (population about 187,000) over to the mainland for this PG national championship event.
“We’re trying to get these kids exposed to the colleges as much as we can and get any kind of help that we can for parents in Hawaii that will have a hard time sending their kids to college,” he said Sunday before Big Island Blue took on East Bay Rep in a round-of-16 playoff game at the Goodyear Ballpark Complex. “We’ve got a couple of colleges that are interested in a couple of these kids, and it’s a real good experience for them.”
Kaha Wong played baseball at USC and had a two-year minor league career in Reno, Nev., before returning to Hilo to work with his sons. He started Big Island Baseball back when Kolten was in high school (he was a 2008 graduate of Kamehameha High School in Hilo). It has been a success throughout its seven or eight years of existence.
“We’ve had a good flow of players; everybody that plays on the Big Island has probably belonged to this organization,” Wong said. “We’re proven; we’ve sent a lot of kids to college and I love doing this. I’ve got my batting cages and all these kids come to me for hitting (instruction). That’s what I am, I’m an instructor, and I love doing what I’m doing.”
Wong considered himself a friend of the late Mike Spiers – the founder of Southern California-based ABD Baseball – and Kolten played in a couple of PG tournament on the mainland with the ABD Bulldogs. Both Kolten and Kean Wong participated in several Perfect Game showcase events.
“We’ve always been with Perfect Game,” Wong said. “If either one of my sons want to take this over after their (playing) careers are done that would be fine, or I’ll just keep on going. We love Perfect Game and this is a very organized tournament and we’ll keep on coming every year.”
Kolten was a first-round selection (No. 22 overall) of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Hawaii, and made his big-league debut with the Cardinals on Aug. 16. The Tampa Bay Rays made Kean Wong a fourth-round pick right out of Hilo High School in June, and he spent the summer with the Rays’ Rookie-level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League.
Kaha Wong said there are 11 high schools on the Big Island of Hawaii, and kids from all over the island participate in a wood bat league he operates during the winter. When he assembles teams for an event like the PG/EvoShield Upperclass, he’ll send out invitations to the top players and their families whom he thinks belongs on one of the rosters.
“We’ve got good talent, and we’ll go straight up to the parents and tell them that their kid probably has a chance to play at the next level,” Wong said. “From there, if they believe in what I’m doing, we’ll end up bringing them over.”
He said he had another group of underclassmen that he would have liked to bring to the PG/EvoShield Underclass national tournament last week, but too many of them attend private school and couldn’t get out of class.
Big Island Baseball Blue outscored its three pool opponents by a combined 29-14 to earn the playoffs’ No. 9 seed. Wong knew this group would have to score a lot of runs to be successful.
“We came with no pitching,” he said matter-of-factly, “but I knew we had a lot of athletic kids and a lot of quickness, a lot of speed and they can hit. I knew that if we could get by with our pitching that we’d be OK.”
The pitching came through big-time in Big Island Blue’s 2-1 win over San Ramon, Calif.-based East Bay Rep in the round-of-16, a win that moved the Blues into the quarterfinals. Right-hander Conrad Kauffman (2014, Hilo) pitched a complete game two-hitter, striking out four and walking four.
The offense was led through the first four games by 5-foot-9, 185-pound catcher Makoa Rosario (2014, Hilo). Rosario batted 7-for-13 (.538) with three doubles, a triple, five RBI, six runs and a 1.456 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (PS). Jordan Hirae (2014, Hilo) was 5-for-11 (.455) with five RBI and a .988 OPS and Isaiah Banasan (2014, Hilo) was 3-for-7 (.429) with a double and two RBI.
It might be important to remember that none of these players are ranked by Perfect Game or have committed to a college at any level. That emphasizes, again, why Wong felt it was important for them to be here.
“We don’t have this kind of competition in Hawaii,” he said. “We have minimum (club) teams – on our island we have probably five or six teams – and we want to come out here and experience good talent and see where we stand; that’s why we came all the way out here. Perfect Game is a perfect opportunity for these kids, and to be playing in the (round of 16) is accomplishing a lot.”
Advancing to the final eight at PG national championship tournament is even more of an accomplishment. Big Island Baseball Blue’s unforeseen run deep into the playoffs finally came to an end late Sunday afternoon when it was beaten in the quarterfinals by tournament No. 1 seed GBG Marucci Navy, 9-1.
The Big Islanders didn’t play into Monday, but their stay on the mainland was nothing but beneficial.
“They’re loving it,” Wong said of his players. “They’ve got their confidence up and they know they can play with the rest of the United States. I see more kids now doing their extra running, and they’re attitude and their confidence has changed a lot. They know that they can play with these guys and that’s all we wanted. Now they can go back home and tell their friends that they had a good experience at the Perfect Game/EvoShield championships and hopefully they will want to come back next year.”