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2018-19 MIL Athletes of the Year: Naighel Calderon

A mix of talent, hard work and maturity made Calderon a trailblazer for Lanai

Naighel Calderon is the first Lanai High School athlete to be selected to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Hall of Honor, as well as the first to be named The Maui News Boy Athlete of the Year. The Maui News file photo

To say that Naighel Calderon is blazing new territory would be a bit of an understatement.

Next spring, Calderon will be the first Maui Interscholastic League baseball player to compete for the University of Hawaii since Keahi Rawlins finished his career in Manoa in 2007.

Last month, Calderon became the first Lanai High School graduate ever to be selected to the HHSAA Hall of Honor.

Now, Calderon is the first Pine Lad to be selected as The Maui News MIL Boy Athlete of the Year.

“I’m in shock right now, like, the Hall of Honor, now this, it’s like all piling up, so much to take in,” Calderon said earlier this month. “But I’m enjoying it.”

RICK SCHONELY photo

Calderon flashed his athletic ability early, perhaps most notably when he was a fourth-grader and a group of football coaches visited the Pineapple Island — the contingent was led by former Kahuku High School coach Reggie Torres, who brought several of his Red Raider players along.

“He was young, he was a quarterback with long hair,” Torres said in December when he coached Calderon in the Life Champion Bowl all-star football game at King Kekaulike Stadium, recalling his original meeting with Calderon. “When we did the clinic you could just tell, ‘Boy, this kid’s an athlete.’ “

In the 2018-19 academic year, Calderon was a first-team MIL All-Star selection in eight-player football, and Division II basketball and baseball.

Calderon was the only player in the Life Champion Bowl from the eight-player ranks.

“He belonged here,” Torres said.

SOPHIA CHOI LIM photo

Tristan Catan, a recent graduate of Kamehameha Maui and first-team Division I MIL All-Star in football and baseball, said he was startled by Calderon’s prowess on the gridiron.

“I’d say he’s one in a billion, just an amazing athlete,” Catan said of Calderon after the bowl game. “He’s arguably the fastest guy out here, out of 94 of us.”

The football visit to Lanai from the group led by Torres is something Calderon never forgot.

“They made the young kids on Lanai enjoy the sport, so it really did motivate and inspire us,” Calderon said.

Ultimately that visit led the Pine Lads to their first prep football title of any kind when they shared the 2018 MIL eight-player title with Molokai. Lanai had to order new uniforms when 38 players turned out and committed to the season — the old set of uniforms had only 35 jerseys.

Naighel Calderon hits one of his state record-tying four home runs during Lanai’s 10-1 win over St. Anthony in March. CHRISTIAN YUMOL photo

“It was a blessing because we inspired our community and the younger generation — everybody, pretty much everybody,” Calderon said. “You can’t say that we didn’t work hard for that MIL title because coming from Lanai it’s not easy to gather up 40 kids to play football, especially when we’re definitely undersized and not a lot of people get involved into sports like that.”

“It was like another family away from my family at home.”

Calderon did not play football his freshman and sophomore years after one of his Pop Warner coaches, Duane Ozoa, died at 51 in 2015 after a long battle with cancer. Calderon called Ozoa his “second father, in football at least.”

Calderon added, “I remember after every touchdown I made in my high school career I could just hear him screaming, from beyond.”

Calderon spent most of his childhood hanging out and playing with athletes much older than himself as he followed his brother Isaac Calderon, who is six years older, around the athletic fields on Lanai. As the years went on, Naighel Calderon slowly grew into the leader of the pack.

“I grew up a lot, I had to grow up,” Calderon said. “I had no choice because college baseball or professional baseball was my actual goal. I had to grow up along the way, but I wouldn’t have been able to grow up without my friends and my coaches and also my parents, everybody that’s supported me.”

Parents Kimberly and Charlie Calderon helped Naighel follow the path to athletic success that Isaac Calderon struggled to find after an injury in high school.

“The first time I started thinking like an athlete was when I was very little, like before T-ball,” Naighel Calderon said. “My brother, I was following his footsteps. We had a basketball hoop outside my house and I would just try to shoot baseballs, footballs or basketballs inside the hoop.

“My dad would just take me out every Saturday, Sunday to the big park and we would set up bases in the outfield because I couldn’t hit a home run from home plate. … He would try to make me hit home runs over the ‘big boy’ fence.”

This season, that training paid off when — in that same park– Calderon tied a state record when he smacked four home runs in a 10-1 win over St. Anthony. Calderon’s homers came at the Lanai High School field that has a 300-foot fence all the way around the outfield, but it matched a state record that Farrington’s John Matias set in the 1962 state tournament — Matias went on to play Major League Baseball.

Rawlins, who this spring led Molokai to the MIL D-II baseball title in his first year as coach, likes Calderon’s possibilities at UH as a preferred walk-on.

“Naighel is definitely a specimen,” Rawlins said. “You could tell the difference from him and the rest of the group. His athleticism was an eye-opener for me, especially being my first year, I got excited. I was, like, ‘Wow, this is what it’s about.’ Sometimes you see a (Shane) Victorino, sometimes you see a kid like this from Hawaii. … I think he has some potential and a lot of room to improve. It’s scary to think about when he reaches that full potential.”

One of the many coaches who helped develop Calderon was veteran Lanai basketball coach Jimmy Fernandez. Charlie Calderon was an assistant for Fernandez for several seasons.

“When his dad and I were coaching together, that kid came out from when he was sixth grade, so he kind of knows what we do,” Fernandez said. “Because he has that IQ in sports, he’s very smart, but he was immature. Then as he got into high school ball and started playing for us … slowly I think he realized what he can do and he started buying into it.”

Fernandez watched as Calderon’s maturity level slowly caught up to his remarkable athletic prowess.

“He’s definitely a hard worker, but it took a while for the kids to start respecting him,” Fernandez said. “Once whatever he said, he did, followed through, the rest of his teammates started respecting him more which allowed him to be a better team captain, a better leader.”

Fernandez saw a much more mature Calderon when the basketball season started in December, the same week as the Life Champion Bowl.

“We were already playing preseason (basketball) games on Maui, so he would be jumping in playing games and then going back to football,” Fernandez said. “I could feel then his efforts to get his teammates to play better and harder. At times, I thought he tried too hard. I would tell him, ‘Sometimes you don’t have to say anything, you just have got to do it and that’s being a good leader.’

“On Lanai, it’s always easier just to do enough, especially the level he played at — he was a mile ahead of everybody else his age — so it was easy for him to slack off, but again when he got a taste of playing different kids from different schools and different clinics, he realized he could be so much better.”

Calderon remembers trying out for the Lanai Junior Pee Wee Pop Warner team in first grade.

“I tried making the team my first year, but I couldn’t make the team because of my weight,” he said. “I wasn’t very skillful at the time, I didn’t have much motor skills, but I played, like, one game that year and the rest of the year I was water boy.

“That was just another steppingstone to how an athlete should be thinking — now that I look at it, that was probably one of the biggest steps, not making that team.”

Now, his future is here with UH baseball. His name was not called in the recent MLB draft, but professional baseball remains his “ultimate goal.”

“I can’t believe that I’m going to be playing a Division I sport coming out of Lanai, I’m just so relieved that my hard work is paying off — I’m ready to work even harder now,” he said. “It’s the fear of regret that keeps me going, so I just don’t want to disappoint. It’s going to be such an honor to wear ‘Hawaii’ across my chest.”

Isaac Calderon’s children — Kapua, 6, and Ayden, 4 — now watch their uncle on his journey. Naighel Calderon sees big things for his niece and nephew.

“If you think I’m a good athlete, you should wait for these little ones because I want them to take the athletic world by storm,” Naighel Calderon said. “Trust me, Kapua is a speedster and Ayden, he is a left- and right-handed baseball player, I can tell already. He swings the bat both ways perfectly.”

Calderon knows he carries an important responsibility being the first to accomplish so many things for Lanai.

” ‘Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard’ — that’s my go-to motto because everyone thought that I was just talented, but nobody saw the hard work that I put in on the side,” he said. “This is my home, this is where we come from, and I couldn’t be any more honored to represent Lanai.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

MIL Boy Athletes of the Year

1990-91–Jason Lopez, Baldwin

1991-92–Kalei Awai, St. Anthony

1992-93–Ray Wilhelm, Baldwin

1993-94–Carlton Okamoto, Baldwin

1994-95–Buddy Perry, Lahainaluna

1995-96–Robert Kemfort, Maui High

1996-97–Bubba McLean, St. Anthony

1997-98–Jansen Medeiros, Lahainaluna

1998-99–Shane Victorino, St. Anthony

2000-01–Kawika Kahui, Baldwin

2001-02–Ikaika Neizman, Lahainaluna, and Kainoa Casco, Lahainaluna

2002-03–Akamu Aki, Baldwin

2003-04–J.J. Eno, Baldwin

2004-05–Bulla Tuzon, Baldwin

2005-06–Tye Perdido, Seabury Hall

2006-07–Manu Adolpho, Molokai

2007-08–Lake Casco, Lahainaluna

2008-09–Reid Hunter, King Kekaulike, and Mana Rosa, Baldwin

2009-10–Brock Shishido, Baldwin

2010-11–Pasoni Tasini, Baldwin

2011-12–Pasoni Tasini, Baldwin

2012-13–Keelan Ewaliko, Baldwin

2013-14–David Rapanot, Molokai

2014-15–Thomas Rosen-St. John, Lahainaluna

2015-16–Laakea Kahoohanohano-Davis, Baldwin

2016-17–Micah Jio, Maui High

2017-18–Chayce Akaka, Baldwin

2018-19–Naighel Calderon, Lanai

Note: No winner selected in 1999-2000