Maui ready for big stage
WAILUKU – As Kevin Constantino leaned against his pickup truck at Papohaku Park and pondered what will happen Friday night, all he could do was shake his head and smile.
Constantino, the head coach for the Central East Maui All-Stars, will guide his Majors (11-12) Division state champion against the Southern California champion in front of about 15,000 fans at Al Houghton Stadium in San Bernardino, Calif., in the West Regional opener for both.
This will not be like playing at Kaunakakai Field or Kilauea District Park, where the CEM squad won the Maui County and state titles, respectively.
“This is all new to us,” Constantino said. “Everyone has come up to us and let us know what to expect, the experience these kids are going to have. Obviously, Southern Cal, I mean, whoa. We are like showtime, we have got 8 o’clock, night game (PST). From what I hear, 15,000 (fans) maybe.”
Constantino has received advice from Napa Kaupe and Timo Donahue, among others, since beating Waipio 2-0 on Thursday to cap a 5-1 run through the state tournament.
Kaupe is the father of 2012 New York Mets fourth-round draft pick Branden Kaupe and the head coach of the state championship team that went to San Bernardino two years ago.
Donahue is the Waipio head coach who played at Damien Memorial School, the University of Washington and in the Cleveland Indians farm system before guiding Waipio to the 2008 Little League World Series title.
Napa Kaupe and daughter Nawai Kaupe, a key member of that 2011 state championship team, visited the CEM practice on Friday to offer advice.
“Today we are practicing under the lights, we are just talking to them, we have got four days to prepare,” Constantino said. “That Waipio team we beat was unreal, Timo Donahue has been there. We just told our kids, ‘Just battle, leave it all on the field.’ “
The Central East Maui team is made up of seven Braves, three Phillies, two Dodgers and one Yankee from the league’s regular-season teams. They are the fourth state champion from Maui this summer and three other Valley Isle teams advanced to state title games.
“I mean, it’s unreal,” Constantino said. “I think it is big props to the coaching nowadays. Everybody is stepping their game up, obviously. We have four different teams. From our standpoint, it’s really tough to try to put these bunch of kids together, but they have come a long way.
“Shoots, this has been a very good year for Maui baseball, as you can see. I can’t ever remember a summer like this for Maui.”
The CEM players are soaking it all in.
“I’m having a lot of fun, playing hard,” said Jacob Chong, a 12-year-old outfielder, pitcher and shortstop who played for the Braves in the regular season. “Now, I’m both nervous and ready to play.”
The team is made up of players from Iao, Kamehameha, St. Anthony, Kalama and Lokelani middle schools.
“We are all friends,” Chong said.
Anthony Hoopii-Tuionetoa, 12, is a pitcher and shortstop. Like Chong, he is an 8th-grader at Iao School.
“We knew how good Waipio is,” Hoopii-Tuionetoa said. “We got a lot of confidence beating them. It is going to get us ready to face harder pitchers, more dominant defense and bigger kids than what they had.”
Hoopii-Tuionetoa said the Valley Isle team is good enough to overcome any part of its game not being on on any given day.
“The last tournament we weren’t hitting, but we were putting the ball in play, bringing in runs,” he said. “And our defense was on when we had to play those tough teams, especially Waipio.”
Hoopii-Tuionetoa agreed with Chong that this team is close.
“For three months, we have bonded a lot,” he said. “We have got to know each other better. We know what our strengths and our weaknesses are from each other.”
Constantino, a member of the last state champion from the Maui Interscholastic League, the 1995 Baldwin High School team, said his team pays attention to Maui’s baseball lore.
“Every one of them wants to step it up and we tell them, ‘It starts from here. You work hard here and we prepare you for the next level,’ ” he said. “A bunch of them want to go to college and pretty much all of them said they want to enter the majors. They look at Shane (Victorino, of the Boston Red Sox), they look at Kurt (Suzuki, of the Washington Nationals).”
Of the 13 players, 10 have pitcher listed as one of their positions.
“We can call on any one of these guys to pitch,” Constantino said. “I believe we have a great defense. I always tell our pitchers, ‘Hit your spots, we have the best defense behind you.’ “
Defeating Waipio by scores of 3-1 and 2-0, sandwiched around a 1-0 loss, gives the Valley Isle team confidence it can compete in San Bernardino – Waipio followed its 2008 world title with the 2010 United States crown.
“They know – they are always, like, ‘Coach, we got this,’ ” Constantino said. “These kids still haven’t played to their potential, yet. That’s the scary part. Pitching and defense got us through, but our bats haven’t woken up yet. I have got to say this is a very well-rounded team right here.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org