Pac-West forging an identity
By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer
It's as much a case of mistaken identity as unknown entity for the Pac-West varsity baseball team.
"During scrimmages we would play (O'ahu Interscholastic Association) teams and they would ask us, 'Who are you guys?' " said freshman pitcher Alec Kimura, who attends Island Pacific Academy. "One time in a preseason tournament some girls came up to us and asked us, 'Are you guys from Mid-Pac?' "
Like its big brother Pac-Five, Pac-West is a conglomeration of high schools: Hanalani Schools, Christian Academy, Lanakila Baptist and Island Pacific, which compete together in a few team sports because as individual programs, they do not have the numbers to carry a team.
"We still get that reaction," said senior shortstop Evan Fujimoto, of Island Pacific. "But it's not as bad anymore."
Pac-West offers intermediate boys and girls soccer, intermediate and junior varsity softball, and intermediate and varsity baseball. This is the first year of varsity baseball, although in years past the team played at the junior varsity level, which was dropped this season as all the players moved up.
This is the first season any Pac-West team has fielded a varsity program, and the baseball team achieved its greatest accomplishment to date when it beat Maryknoll, 10-9, on March 19 to improve its record to 1-5. That followed just weeks after the intermediate team won for the first time — the first time any Pac-West baseball team won a game. In the previous two years at the junior varsity level, the team didn't win a single regular-season game.
"I think we're still celebrating," coach Dennis Fukunaga said Tuesday. "It's a blessing that it happened this early in the season. They feel so good about themselves now."
It was a good start to a season that began with the team scrounging for players. It started the season with a program-best 18 players, but two soon dropped out. When a player joined after completing his basketball season that boosted the roster to 17.
"The first year we had 12, the next year we had 14. We're growing in numbers," Fukunaga said. "We have a lot of athletes, but probably half the team didn't play baseball or they played in Little League and took two or three years off and now they are just coming back."
Fukunaga formerly coached at Pearl City for nine years, with longtime coach Mel Seki, who joined with Fukunaga to help form the Pac-West baseball program before passing away in 2008.
"Before going, (Seki) would say, 'One more win for the boys' ... and we struggled, but it came," Fukunaga said. "They broke down and they cried. That was more than a win for us, it was for coach Mel."
The baseball team competes in Division II, and although it defeated the only other Division II opponent in Maryknoll, Pac-West will not qualify for the state tournament because it is under Pac-Five, and Pac-Five has a Division I program, according to Island Pacific and Pac-West athletic director Ron Tsuchiya.
"But that doesn't matter. We're just happy to be playing in the ILH this year," Fukunaga said.
The program was formed in the 2007-08 school year out of necessity for the students who attend Pac-West schools, which are located in Central and Leeward O'ahu, farther west than those that comprise Pac-Five. It was difficult for parents to shuttle their children to practices or games.
Tsuchiya estimates that "85 to 90 percent" of the athletes on Pac-West teams couldn't participate with Pac-Five because of "challenges."
He realized the strain travel was putting on the parents, who were opting instead for their children not to play sports.
"All the feedback I got was that the parents thought it was too difficult," Tsuchiya said.
Junior center fielder Kellen Abe, of Hanalani, said his father would drive him to Pac-Five practices after school "and we would always get stuck in traffic. I skipped a year in my freshman year because the travel was too far."
So Island Pacific's headmaster, Dr. Daniel E. White, suggested Tsuchiya start a program more centrally located, under the umbrella of Pac-Five.
Pac-West teams practice and play in a central location, either at Central O'ahu Regional Park, or in Waipahu or Pearl City.
"I think it's so important to have an individual that has the interest to be involved with athletics to have the opportunity to play the sport they would love to do," Tsuchiya said. "Many athletes who have a sport they have grown up with had to make choices, like their parents can't take them to Kapi'olani Park for their practice, so they had to find another sport they could do near the school that is not their first choice."
Individuals from Pac-West schools — such as Island Pacific's ILH tennis champ Matthew Westmoreland — will still compete for Pac-Five until the state tournament when they will compete for their own school. Athletes can still play for Pac-Five if the sport is not offered by Pac-West.
"I want to be realistic, so realistically, football, no, we'll probably still support the Pac-Five program," Tsuchiya said. "We had individuals swimming and playing water polo for Pac-Five. If we can handle an individual sport, we would go ahead and try to accommodate them."
Peter Estomago, the Pac-Five athletic director, remembers the difficulty of combining schools to create a program. He was there 35 years ago at the start of Pac-Five — then called the HBMMU Hummers — for Hawai'i Baptist Academy, Maryknoll School, Mid-Pacific Institute and University High School. Then Lutheran High School joined, to make the official Pac-Five. Now, 20 schools are under the Pac-Five umbrella, with about 1,200 athletes in the program.
"That's one thing that is unique about the program," Estomago said. "They come together from different schools, they form relationships with each other, and they come from different backgrounds. It's a challenge. Every school has a different dismissal, academics and behavior eligibility, and coaches have to live with the fact that it's not the same."