Koa Matson wasn’t expecting to land a full-ride baseball scholarship from Lewis-Clark State College, a longtime NAIA powerhouse and previously a frequent visitor to the Rainbow Easter Baseball Tournament.
Those days are long gone. Les Murakami last coached a University of Hawaii baseball game in 2000. Now, the stadium is named after him. Ed Cheff, who won 16 national titles, retired in 2010 after 34 years at LCSC. They were good friends, and Cheff’s son, Tyler, played for the Rainbows from 1991-94.
Matson, a recent Hilo graduate, learned all about that history — especially the Warriors’ winning tradition — from his dad, Charlie, who grew up in Waianae with Kekoa Kaluhiokalani, a former LCSC pitcher.
Charlie Matson and Kaluhiokalani, Waianae High’s baseball coach, are good friends. The Seariders coach put in a good word about Koa to his old college team. One thing led to another, and the younger Matson was offered a scholarship, a four-year package at the Idaho school, which went 42-14 last season.
The catcher, who played for Hilo’s Senior League World Series championship ballclub last summer, was headed to Lon Morris College, a junior college in Texas. But the program folded, and he received a scholarship from Cisco Community College, a big whip in Texas that finished fourth in the nation last season.
However, Matson’s heart always belonged to the Warriors, long before he signed with Lon Morris, along with Honokaa’s Dylan Shiraki and Joey Charbonneau, Kamehameha-Hawaii’s Kaimana Moike and Hawaii Prep’s Jayse Bannister, who all found new homes. Shiraki and Moike are going to Eastern Arizona College, Charbonneau will go to Luna Community College in New Mexico, and Bannister is headed to Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.
“The biggest reasons I signed with Lewis-Clark were their high graduation rate, it’s a four-year college, and it’s the school I’ve wanted to go to since I was a little kid,” Matson said. “I’ve heard a lot about them being a powerhouse and their tradition, and 16 national championships. A few of my dad’s friends went there and had only good things to say.”
However, the Warriors initially only offered a walk-on spot. Then Gary Picone, who doubles as the athletic director, stepped down after two years, when Jeremiah Robbins was hired as head coach from Western Oregon. Robbins won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in all seven of his years.
Suddenly, a full-ride deal was on the table for Matson, who was told freshmen rarely get scholarships and are generally asked to walk on. The Warriors didn’t scout Matson at all — well, except for a 20-minute video on YouTube.
Actually, the Warriors did scout Matson. Kaluhiokalani saw Matson at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament his junior year and watched him again during the preseason in his senior season.
“That’s definitely from Kekoa,” Charlie Matson said of the full-ride. “His word still holds weight over there.”
That lifelong friendship benefited the younger Matson, who not only learned the value of camaraderie but also life lessons from his dad, a former corrections officer.
“I’ve seen firsthand a lot of local boys go astray,” Charlie Matson said. “I had five rules: no drinking, no drugs, respect women, no fighting and no speeding. I knew this guy would be disciplined, and those five rules would cover everything.
“It’s a long-time dream of his. I’m happy he achieved something he set out to do.”
The full-ride wasn’t delivered on a silver platter to young Matson, who plans on majoring in kinesiology after graduating from Hilo with a 2.97 grade-point average. He spent the summer playing in a collegiate league on Oahu.
He credited Hilo coach Tony DeSa for his improved flexibility, gained from focusing on core exercises, and Maurice Silva — father of Dallas Cowboys safety Mana Silva — for his upgraded durability.
“The flexibility helped with my defense,” Matson said. “Prior to this year, I had a lot of problems with muscle pulls. Coach Maurice helped me become more durable. I went back to running sprints, and he helped my running form.
“The things I learned from my dad are definitely discipline and a blue-collar work ethic. The biggest thing is getting something easy is not worth having. A dream is just a dream unless you work for it. No one hands you anything. It takes discipline and hard work, and my dad has always motivated me to work hard.”