PONY League state tournament: Kona Mustang gallops into title game
Understandably, Mana Fujihara’s favorite facet of baseball is hitting. But when he gets on base, the fun doesn’t stop there.
“My mind is kind of empty and I just focus on stealing,” Fujihara said.
Running full throttle Sunday, Kona took the driver’s seat at the state PONY League Mustang 9s tournament, beating Hilo Gray 11-5 to reach the championship game at Walter Victor Stadium.
Lil Soljahs ran at will in the first two innings, recording 10 of their 13 steals, and seven of their runners who crossed the plate swiped at least one base to move into scoring position.
“My goal is to be aggressive on the bases,” coach Kallen Hiraishi said. “They love to run. I train them super hard to try and get the lead and get a good jump.”
After the game, Kona’s players told their coaching staff they weren’t tired yet. That could make it all the more difficult for Mililani to beat them twice Monday. Mililani reached the final with two victories Sunday, including an 11-7 win to eliminate Hilo Gray.
Kona can secure the championship in a 9 a.m. contest. If Mililani wins, a winner-take-all would follow.
Hitting at the bottom of the lineup, Fujihara delivered a run-scoring single in the second inning — he later stole home — and a two-run double in the fifth.
“I’m surprised that we’ve gotten this far,” Fujihara said. “Nothing’s going to be in our way. We’re just going to win.”
Kona beat both Hilo teams in the field en route to a title game appearance that could prove historic. The Kona Crush reached the Broncos (11-12) final last year before losing to Hilo, but a West Hawaii team hasn’t claimed a state PONY title in any age group dating back to at least 1994, according to tournament director Gwen Earl.
“Our first goal was to win states,” Hiraishi said. “The kids have mental toughness. They want to win, and they have that drive to win, and I’m happy they stick with it.”
Evan Elarionoff pitched three shutout innings of relief to get the victory, striking out one.
When Kona wasn’t stealing it was being opportunistic. Lil Soljahs took a 6-5 lead in the fourth when Keanu Alokoa and Logan Neves reached on singles, and two runners eventually scored on wild pitches.
The bats came to the party during a five-run fifth. Elarionoff brought in a run with double, and Tookie Hook and Jake Bannister followed with RBI singles ahead of Fujihara’s double to left.
“You know how these kids are,” Hiraishi said. “You want them to do it early in the game, but they come late.
“They has their ups and downs, but they came back.”
Kaikua Kokubun pitched four-plus inning in taking the loss.
In the third, Kokubun put Hilo ahead for the second time with a two-run single. Kaohu Kawela and Devin Garza each finished with two hits.
Hilo twice missed chances to tie the game in the fifth.
First, Taven Hiraishi fielded a ball at shortstop and threw out a runner trying to score from third. Then with the bases loaded and two outs, Kyson Wada’s popup was dropped in the infield, but the runner on first was called out for straying from the base line. Hilo was initially awarded a run, but the call was reversed after the umpires met and determined the force play still applied.
Hilo 203 000 — 5 7 2
Kona 130 25x — 11 8 3
Mililani 11, Hilo Gray 7: Mental errors continued to hurt Hilo Gray in the final game of the day.
With the score tied 5-5 in the top of the fifth, reliever Hekili Robello was set to get out of the inning after inducing a groundball, but Hilo threw to the wrong bag to load the bases.
Three hits later, Mililani led 10-5.
Hilo’s Joshua Ward capped a torrid tournament, going 4 for 4 with a solo home run and four RBIs. In three games, Ward hit for the cycle and was 7 for 9 and drove in six runs.
Kydyn Nakamura was 2 for 2 with a double, and Garza posted two RBIs.
Mililani has won three in a row after dropping its tournament opener to Kapolei, Oahu.