Baldwin finishes at No. 8 in USA Today national rankings
WAILUKU — An unprecedented, 14-week magic carpet ride reached the end of its journey on Wednesday for the Baldwin High School baseball team: No. 8 in the USA Today Super 25 national rankings.
The state champion Bears became the first Maui Interscholastic League team of any kind to make a national top-25 list when they checked in at No. 23 on March 21. They topped out at No. 7 in the two weekly rankings before the final one came out on Wednesday.
“Brah, it’s more than cool,” Baldwin coach Shane Dudoit said. “Not only just because it’s the first from Maui, but it’s cool for our kids to be recognized for their efforts, and their parents. It’s good for family, it’s good for Maui, it’s good for baseball.”
The lofty heights won’t make things any easier for Baldwin going forward.
“I’m sure we got the haters out there, you know, it puts a bigger target on our back, but it’s all worth it, brah,” Dudoit said.
Baldwin finished second in the west, behind only Valley Christian (29-3-1) of San Jose, Calif. Riverdale Baptist (32-1) of Upper Marlboro, Md., finished No. 1 in the country.
The Bears, 22-3-1 on the season, placed four players on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser first team — third baseman Chayce Akaka, first baseman Nainoa Keahi, utility player Kaipo Haole and Bubba Hoopii-Tuionetoa, who was named state player of the year, among many other accolades.
Akaka had a breakout baseball season, hitting .479. He recently switched his intended college destination from Chabot College (Heyward, Calif.) for football to Yavapai College in Arizona for baseball.
“What I tried to tell the team was: ‘Don’t worry about the rankings, just play our game,’ “ Akaka said. “Just play as if we’re the last-place team. At one point when we lost to Kamehameha (Maui), the rankings got to our heads.
“After that it was a wake-up call for us, so from there we just moved forward, kept doing us. I mean, it was a great season with these guys — I’m sure going to miss them. We had a good brotherhood, a good family, and you know, stepped together.”
Hoopii-Tuionetoa, the near-unanimous choice for league Player of the Year, led The Maui News MIL All-Star first team that saw nine of the 12 players come from Baldwin.
Hoopii-Tuionetoa broke on to the scene this season, drawing several visits from professional baseball scouts with his fastball that consistently topped 90 mph all season. After pitching only one inning last season, Hoopii-Tuionetoa was the state tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was drafted in the 16th round by the Minnesota Twins, 484th overall.
All season, Dudoit pointed to the attention that Hoopii-Tuionetoa received as a key to the national acclaim that followed for the team.
“Whether we won the state tournament or not, these were a bunch of good kids, no matter what,” Dudoit said. “Not just because we won were these guys special. I want to say that every team I coach is special. … These guys, though, a great bunch of kids, a great bunch of leaders, a fun bunch of guys to coach.”
The Bears return 12 players who have youth World Series experience, many of whom did not play much for this team that said goodbye to five senior starters.
Dudoit, who was born and raised on Molokai, was hesitant to call this team the best ever for the MIL. Molokai sent eight players to high-level college baseball or the professional ranks from its 1999 and 2000 state championship teams when there was only one level of play in Hawaii.
“We would never know until we could settle it on the field,” Dudoit said. “Hypothetically thinking, I will play anybody. I don’t care who. You’re never going to know until you get out there. If the Yankees wanted to come play, I would play the Yankees, brah. That’s the only way to find out, right? I’m not afraid of playing anybody.”
The Bears outscored their MIL and state tournament opponents 136-26. Baldwin’s 1.63 runs per inning at the state tournament (31 runs in 19 innings) ranks third all-time behind the 1979 Radford team (1.74) and the 2000 Farmers (1.67), according to HawaiiPrepWorld.com.
“Those Molokai teams were special,” Dudoit said. “The (state-champion) Maui High team last year, they were special. What we did this year, the amount of runs we scored, the recognition we got, it’s a special team, but I’m hoping it’s not the last, not just for Baldwin. I hope it’s not the last for the MIL and the state of Hawaii.”
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com.