Maui High honors Yonamine

WAILUKU – Lee Yonamine was at Maehara Stadium on Wednesday, helping set up for the Maui High School Invitational baseball tournament, just as he has for more than half of his life.

This time, however, he wasn’t doing it as the Sabers’ head coach.

“It’s kind of weird,” the 49-year-old Yonamine admitted while standing near a Matson container that held the food for one of the top preseason tournaments in the state. “It took me a while to make the decision and I just felt it was my time, time to let the younger guys do their thing. All those guys have been coaching there, 100 percent Maui High School alumni, the majority of them guys I coached. I thought it was just the right time.”

Yonamine stepped down as Sabers’ head coach after sharing the duties with Chase Corniel last season. Yonamine said he needs to concentrate on funding his daughter’s education as she attends Creighton University.

“I told (athletic director) Mike Ban, ‘If I’m not 100 percent committed to the program, I don’t think I should be the head guy,’ ” Yonamine said. “I mean, I still love the game. I miss the everyday going to the field, being with the guys, the boys, those are the biggest things to me that is going to change.”

A starter for the 1982 Maui High team that won a state title, Yonamine became junior varsity head coach in 1985 when he was 20, spent three years in that capacity and then was an assistant to Francis Miyazono for two seasons with the varsity. After five years away from the program, he took over for Jason Pagan as head coach in 1996.

“He grew up with Maui High baseball,” said current assistant coach Dean Yonamine, Lee’s younger brother by eight years. “He was born to be a coach – he has that leadership quality, he’s very fair and I think that’s the strong point that made his system work.”

In 18 seasons at the helm, Lee Yonamine won Maui Interscholastic League pennants in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2008, and went to 14 state tournaments. He also coached Maui teams to the Colt League World Series in 1991, 1992 and 1993, and 12 years ago, he coordinated the efforts to get a batting cage and practice field built on the Maui High campus – the field is the backup for rainouts in MIL play.

Yonamine’s Maui High jersey, No. 35, was presented to him during the opening ceremony for the tournament on Thursday night. One of the organizers of the ceremony was Kelly Fliear, a former assistant coach and the grandfather of two former Sabers players.

Fliear met Yonamine when the Maui High staff visited Kihei Little League for a clinic.

“My first impression was of a real humble guy that obviously wanted to give back to the community or he wouldn’t have been there working with 7- and 8-year-old kids that day,” Fliear said. “From the get-go, he and I had a friendship from the very first pitch.”

Fliear has watched and helped Yonamine develop the program.

“He had to be kind of like a dad to probably over 1,000 ballplayers,” Fliear said.

“Sometimes it means, ‘Do you have to punish them?’ Sometimes it means you have to put your arms around their shoulder. I saw Lee do all of that.”

Corniel, who played for Yonamine in 1997 and 1998 and is a teacher at Maui High, had a direct answer when asked what Yonamine meant to the program.

“Everything,” Corniel said. “He had this vision of how to take Maui High baseball to the next level and that’s what he did. Pretty big shoes to fill, but he gave me the opportunity to succeed and I will do my best.”

Yonamine coached NCAA Division I players Royce Fukuroku, Brandon Viloria, Van Delos Santos, Vance Otake and Mark Karaviotis. Jared Joaquin played in the Texas Rangers organization and Kalaika Kahoohalahala has played independent professional baseball for the last three seasons.

“He made the person I am today,” said Kahoohalahala, a 2006 graduate who is now with the Rockford (Ill.) Aviators in the Frontier League. “He always treated everyone equal. He made everybody a better player and person. No matter what, he’s always here.”

Yonamine said he has a place for every player he coached.

“For us, it wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about baseball, it was more about teaching the kids lessons in life, how they become as adults,” he said.

“I always tell the kids, ‘Not everybody is going to end up playing at the next level or pros. If that is your goal, I will try to do whatever it takes.’ But my main job was to teach them to be role models in the community. To me, that’s the most satisfaction I get out of coaching all my years. I had some guys when they were playing for me, I thought, ‘Whoa, these guys are going to end up in prison,’ but they ended up OK.”

Yonamine pointed to Delos Santos as one of his biggest success stories.

“If it was not for baseball, I don’t think he would have gone to school, and look at him now – he is an outreach social worker for troubled youth,” Yonamine said. “I’m so proud of all these guys.”

Corniel summed up Yonamine as the personification of the program.

“He is Maui High baseball,” Corniel said.

* Robert Collias is at