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Maui Titans providing players path to college

Kaycee Arase bats during a game for Corban University, located in Salem, Ore. Arase, a 2018 Maui High School graduate, is one of more than 20 Maui Titans players since 2017 to go on to play college softball. Doug Pfeiler photo

Kaycee Arase is grateful.

The Maui Titans have helped 21 players from Maui County advance to college softball since 2017 and Arase, a 2018 Maui High School graduate, was one of the first to do so from the travel-ball program.

“All of our coaches with the Titans, they literally helped us in every aspect, like, school, too,” Arase said via phone from Salem, Ore., where she is in her third year as an elementary education major at Corban University. “They made sure we had grade checks, they made sure our grades were good, they talked to us about what we needed to succeed academically, which I thought was really important.”

Arase is a catcher/third baseman who will be a sophomore athletically in the spring season — she was part of the class awarded an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to make lists of different colleges we wanted to play at and we had to write emails to them,” Arase recalled. “And, of course, you know at that age, like 14, you’re like, ‘Oh, why do I have to do this?’ But it really paid off in the long run. It opened a lot of doors.”

Baldwin High School’s Jessica Ai launches a home run during an MIL game on May 1, 2018. Ai is now a freshman at Dixie State. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Dennis Harmon is the Titans head coach. His daughter Aliya is a freshman on the Weber State softball team, along with sophomore Saree-Ann Kekahuna — both are former Titans who graduated from Baldwin.

“It takes a village,” he said. “It does warm my heart. That has always been our focus, is getting our kids an opportunity to play and use softball to help pay for their education — that’s our No. 1 goal, always has been. … The range is huge, from D-I to J.C.

“It’s an overall Maui travel team. We have tryouts and we do interviews and workouts and things like that. We have kids who go to numerous high schools.”

Harmon’s older daughter, Kaylee, played at Western Oregon. Michelle Harmon, Kaylee and Aliya’s mom, handles the monetary aspects for all of the Titans teams, at the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age levels.

Dennis Harmon listed 23 coaches who are part of the organization.

Almeida

“The coaches give up countless hours of their time to help develop our girls, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Arase added that the Titans program reaches far across the Mainland to help Maui County players reach the next level.

“Coach Dennis, he had a lot of contacts with a lot of schools and he was constantly calling them about us and he did a lot of help with that,” Arase said. “Just making us feel that we had a foot in the door and were able to start conversations with coaches, which can be scary at that age.”

Corban did not start at the top of her college wish list, but it is right where she wants to be now.

“I actually really like it,” Arase said. “This was not my first choice in the beginning and then I came because the Titans were, like, ‘We love (the program), just try it.’ And I ended up really, really falling in love with the school and the program. It was just a great fit for me.”

Of the 21 players helped to college through the Titans team that started in 2015, six different Maui Interscholastic League schools are represented — Baldwin, Maui High, Kamehameha Maui, King Kekaulike, Lahainaluna and Molokai.

Ten of the players have advanced to junior college, one of which has so far gone on to an NCAA Division II school; four former Titans moved on to NAIA schools, including three at Corban; one at an NCAA D-III school; and six have advanced to NCAA D-I schools, including Baldwin alum Jessica Ai, a current freshman at Dixie State.

“It’s crazy, it’s just crazy to think that we all came from a small island and we are making a name for ourselves on the Mainland,” Ai said via phone from St. George, Utah, where she is attending classes both in person and virtually.

Like Corban was for Arase, Dixie State was down Ai’s list before she ended up there.

“I had never heard of the school until Coach Dennis decided to take a trip to Utah, because Aliya and Saree were both committed to Weber, so he had a successful rate in Utah — he thought let’s just take other kids and promote them in Utah,” Ai said. “So, we ended up doing a camp in Dixie — as soon as I stepped foot on campus I knew I wanted to come here.

“It was hot, not cold like Utah usually is, and it is an hour away from (Las) Vegas and I have family in Vegas. I love it here, it’s really nice and it’s especially like Hawaii.”

The Dixie State team will include Kamehameha Maui standout Lauren Almeida next year — she signed her National Letter of Intent on Sunday — and current Baldwin junior L.B. Kahahawai-Kekona has verbally committed to the program.

“I love both of them, they’re the best,” Ai said. “I played with L.B. in high school and in travel ball, so it’s exciting to have her with me. I look at her like my little sister. And definitely for Lauren, we grew up playing softball together so having that bond and her coming in next year, it’s going to help the team a lot.”

Almeida is excited to get going in college softball.

“It was just a huge blessing to get that type of opportunity to play at the D-I level,” Almeida said. “It was the best thing for me and my family just to get that type of opportunity because it was always my dream to play at that caliber. I finally get that opportunity to make an impact on the team.

“I’m ready, I’m ready to go.”

Almeida is grateful to be a part of the Titans organization when she considers the number of college opportunities.

“That’s just amazing, our coaches did a good job of teaching us the game well,” Almeida said. “Teaching us good work ethic about the game and how to take it seriously and I’m proud of everybody and all their accomplishments, too, and how well they’re doing right now.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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