Hilo has enough of everything — pitching, hitting and defense — to throw its hat into the title race but softball coach Leo Sing Chow knows her biggest job is figuring out where everyone fits.
The Vikings are the two-time Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I champions and return a handful of key seniors, including ace pitcher Aliesa Kaneshiro and outfielder Jordyn Breitbarth.
Breitbarth (.367, 11 RBIs, .639 on-base percentage) is the leading hitter back for the Vikings, who open their season today at Hawaii Preparatory Academy. She landed on the All-BIIF first team last year.
Kaneshiro received honorable mention. The ace right-hander went 13-2 with a 0.40 ERA in 72 innings. She allowed 73 hits, 69 walks and struck out 111. She batted .349 with 10 RBIs and posted a .590 on-base percentage.
First baseman Caitlyn Price (.528 on-base percentage) also made the first team while catcher Shyanne Higa-Gonsalves, second baseman Sharlei Graham-Bernisto and outfielders Shalyn Guthier and Reisha Hoopii-Haslam received honorable mention.
Sing Chow pointed out that setting a lineup is not as simple as pulling names from a hat and sticking someone at a position. The former UH-Hilo and Kamehameha-Kapalama standout pitcher views it as completing a puzzle.
“I’m trying to piece everything together, what works best, whose game connects best and what’s the right fit,” she said. “It’s team chemistry, finding the spark that lights the fire. We’re trying to find the heart of this team.”
The offense has a solid bat in Breitbarth, who can trade swing notes with her brother Josh Breitbarth, a sophomore catcher on the Hilo baseball team.
During her family’s summer vacation, Breitbarth stopped in St. Louis for a softball camp, where she worked on footwork and other technical aspects.
“We want to win the BIIFs again. It’ll take communication and bonding,” Breitbarth said. “We need that chemistry. You can have all the talent on one team, but if you don’t have chemistry then things will fall apart.”
Besides experience, the Vikings have helpful athleticism with the basketball players: Graham-Bernisto, Guthier, Cierra Kelii, Amber Vaughn and Chailey Cabalis. The latter two skipped softball last season after playing the year before.
“They’ll definitely bring speed, commitment and intensity,” Sing Chow said. “Basketball is a fast-tempo game. Softball is more strategic. They’ll bring a little bit of fire to the team.”
Hilo lost only two starters, shortstop Fantacie Keahilihau-Kuamoo — the BIIF player of the year — and third baseman Seini Nau, who made the first team despite a .216 batting average.
However, Nau did much more than swing a bat, get on base (.586 percentage) and play solid defense at third base. She was the team’s inspirational leader, the glue that held everyone together and produced the family atmosphere vibe.
“She was the heart of the team, the one people looked up to and followed,” Sing Chow said. “She knew how to pick the girls up, and she meant what she said because it showed in her actions and how she treated her teammates. She’s the one who brought the team together as a family.
“We’re trying to work on that right now. We’ll wait until the games to see what happens. The leaders will reveal themselves through their actions. The natural leaders are the ones the girls follow.”
Sing Chow’s jigsaw puzzle has a lot of pieces at each position. Take the vacant shortstop spot, for example. The candidates are seniors Higa-Gonsalves and Hoopii-Haslam, and sophomores Christine Rawlins-Santiago and Graham-Bernisto.
Whoever is left could be penciled in at first, second or third base, where Price, a junior, is a candidate for the corners. It’s Hilo’s version of the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine.
Rawlins-Santiago is a youngster and another is freshman Moana Pinner, who’ll be in the outfield mix with Breitbarth, Cabalis, Kelii, Higa-Gonsalves, and the rest of the gang.
Kaneshiro had a summer to write home about. The right-hander got the 11-1 win over Anaheim, Calif., in the West Regional that sent the Hilo All-Stars to the RBI World Series in August in Minnesota.
“That experience improved my confidence,” she said. “It really helped me and I learned to stay calm and focused.”
The BIIF is experimenting with a new playoff format: a three-game series with a doubleheader on the first day for both baseball and softball.
It’s no big deal for softball because ace pitchers at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships often throw all their team’s innings. But a doubleheader is a different challenge.
“It’s about conditioning, stamina and getting your arm into shape,” Sing Chow said about pitching doubleheaders. “Aliesa’s looking good. We’re working on her conditioning and fine-tuning her body control, commanding her pitches and her composure.
“She’s a senior, so she’s putting out her heart and giving everything she’s got, and enjoying and making the most of her last season.”