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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Kalani baseball a hit despite early adversity

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kalani coach Shannon Hirai, left, has found a couple of diamonds in the rough and had a couple of seniors step into leadership roles after four players were suspended before the season.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

When life threw the Kalani High School baseball team a nasty curveball last month, the Falcons were facing two options: hang their heads and mope in disbelief, or quickly adjust and go with the pitch.

They chose the latter, and almost hit a home run.

Kalani was coming off last year's 7-4 campaign with a slew of returnees and was considered by many to be the early favorite in the O'ahu Interscholastic Association's Eastern Division. Then, on a preseason trip to the Mainland, four seniors — including three starters — were suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of school rules.

All of a sudden, the Falcons' lofty hopes were being threatened before the first pitch of the regular season.

"We were down when we found out," said senior shortstop Chassis Moody. "But then we had a meeting and said we'll just have to work even harder."

It also meant some players shuffling positions to fill in the gaps, and the remaining seniors stepping into bigger leadership roles. The four suspended players have yet to be reinstated, and chances of their return appear slim.

"We've really gone from being a veteran team to a team that's kind of young," Kalani coach Shannon Hirai said. "Our seniors have been holding us together. Their leadership is getting us as far as we're going."

Despite the setback on the eve of the regular season, the Falcons proceeded to win seven of their first eight East games before falling to Roosevelt on Saturday. They close out the division schedule tomorrow against Kahuku at Kahala Field.

Regardless of tomorrow's outcome, Kalani will finish in at least a tie for second place.

Not bad for a team that had a chunk of its nucleus unexpectedly snatched away at the last minute.

"It's a credit to the kids; they believe in each other," Hirai said. "It's amazing what they can do when that happens."

It helps to have an ace like senior Randy Kitagawa, a wiry left-hander who throws a nasty curve himself. At 5 foot 9, 135 pounds, Kitagawa has been a workhorse so far.

He is 3-1 with a 0.91 ERA in 23 innings over five appearances.

In Kitagawa's only loss, a 4-0 defeat at Kaiser, he still pitched a five-hitter with 10 strikeouts. He also has pitched a one-hitter with nine strikeouts against Moanalua and a four-hitter with 12 strikeouts vs. Kailua.

Kitagawa's other victory came in two innings of relief against Castle.

"I always thought that even as a sophomore, Randy had what it took," Hirai said. "As a junior, he just lacked confidence. But now his confidence is growing with every game."

Hirai called Kitagawa's style "wild but effective," referring to how he often gets strikeouts when batters swing at curveballs in the dirt.

"His curve is just tough to hit," Hirai said. "I was surprised (against Kailua), because they chased a lot of curves."

Sophomore Reid Matsumura also has been a pleasant surprise as the Falcons' No. 2 starter, tossing a three-hitter against Farrington, a one-hitter vs. Kaimuki and a shutout of Kalaheo.

He went 20 innings before giving up his first earned run.

"Our pitching has been outstanding," Hirai said. "And we've played good defense behind them."

Kitagawa, who bats cleanup, has done his share at the plate as well. Against Farrington, he went 2 for 3 with two triples and four RBIs, and against McKinley he went 4 for 5 with a single, two doubles, a home run and four more RBIs.

Hirai credited former Kalani standout and 11-year major league veteran Lenn Sakata and others with helping the Falcons in the offseason.

But mostly, it has been Kalani's cohesiveness and resiliency in the face of adversity that has the Falcons almost exactly where they wanted to be as the regular season winds down.

"Everybody's bonded closer (since the suspensions)," Kitagawa said. "We just said, 'Everybody's gotta pick it up,' and we got tighter with the players that we still had."

Moody said: "We were two-deep at most positions before, and now we're only one deep, but that's OK. Everybody just has to step up their role. We can still do it."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.