Kealakehe does not have a rich history of success on the baseball diamond, or a tradition of churning out highly touted prospects. What the Waveriders do have is an eager, young group of players ready to shatter expectations and a second-year coach seeking to improve the culture of the sport on campus.
“It is coming along and moving in the right direction,” Kealakehe head coach Josh Hansen said. “We have been working from the ground up, trying to learn how to play the game of baseball. We want to learn how to play against the game rather than just different teams. It’s really about learning the basics — getting reads on balls in the dirt, learning how to run the offense, running the bases right, and working on prepitch routines.”
The winds of change are evident within the program. This year, Hansen and his staff initiated the team’s first off-season training program, where the players got in the weight room and gained a head start on the season.
“The off-season program was one of the biggest things for us,” Hansen said. “We have a handful of baseball guys and a handful of athletes. If we can turn those athletes into more baseball guys, it will help us be successful now and going forward. I don’t see any reason why we won’t compete this season at a high level.”
With more sophomores than seniors, the Waveriders lineup is littered with youth.
“I really like my sophomore class,” Hansen said. “They are a strong class and essential for the future of the program. I think they are starting to buy in now and we can start to have our system in place for the future.”
The Waveriders’ youth should not suggest inexperience. With the junior varsity season being played before the varsity season, all of the underclassmen have a full JV season under their belts, as well as a full slate of preseason games — including the Stanley Costales Sr. Memorial/Hilo High preseason tournament at Wong Stadium — heading into opening day.
“(In the preseason) we got to see the competition and what we are up against,” Hansen said. “There’s no guesswork anymore. We know what we have to do and who we are competing against.”
Kealakehe will depend heavily on senior Zaynan Sanchez. On top of being the team’s No. 1 pitcher, Sanchez has also been the most successful Waverider slugging the ball. Sanchez led Kealakehe in on-base percentage (.552), runs (seven) and RBIs (seven) in the preseason.
Hansen attributed much of the senior’s success to knowing he has a scholarship offer to Luna College in Arizona on the table.
“I really think that Zayan can relax now and have a little more confidence out there. I know that will help him during the season,” Hansen said.
Junior Pohaku Dela Cruz, as well as sophomores Sage Valenzuela and Marcus Degrate will also see time on the mound. Shaden Lewi and Keoki Meyers could also get some reps tossing the ball, and are currently in a battle for the leadoff spot in the batting order.
Degrate has been one of the preseason surprises for Kealakehe, getting solid at-bats and impressing the coaches with his defensive ability so much that he locked up the starting spot in left field.
“In the preseason we saw a lot of Marcus’ hits that would have been fly outs or hard ground outs last year, turn into hits,” Hansen said.
Hunter Cuaresma is the lone freshman on the roster but is expected to see a lot of time at second base. Hamlin Sigrah, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior, will hold down first base.
The Waveriders small ball game plan is contingent upon athleticism, which they have in abundance.
“We have speed and guys who can get around the bases quick,” Hansen said. “We want to play small ball with bunting and hit and running. We have five or six guys who can make some things happen on the base paths.”
Kealakehe played rival Konawaena four times in the preseason. The Waveriders lost all four of those contests, but a sign of hope was a narrow 6-4 loss. Another sign of encouragement was the JV squad beating the Wildcats twice.
“It shows we are moving in the right direction,” Hansen said. “Just playing catch is 100 percent the most important thing. If we just allow that to happen we can have success and compete. I think they all know what is expected and they are ready to play.”
Kealakehe opens the season today against Ka‘u at home.