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Pono Foundation helps get players back on field

Keoni Painter (with helmet), Matt Takakura and Dylan Kokubun of the gray team look on during a baseball game sponsored by the Pono Foundation on Saturday at the Maui High School field. The foundation organized games with the thought to help high school players prepare for a possible MIL season. The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photos

KAHULUI — Both teams wore Baldwin High School uniforms, coaches acted as umpires, and the atmosphere was lighthearted.

The blue team won the best-of-3 series in the rubber game with a 12-0 victory over the gray in a baseball program sponsored by the Pono Foundation on Saturday at Maui High School field.

The program was brought to life by Maui Interscholastic League and youth coaches who saw the need for their players to get out and play baseball during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The permit with the County of Maui was a challenge to obtain, but it was helped along by the Pono organization that was started by Jon and Maile Viela and has a long history working to get teams on the diamond.

Word on whether or not MIL spring sports will happen is expected soon — fall and winter sports were canceled by the league in early January.

Jai Mashino (foreground), Zack Ota and Dylan Almeida lead a group of blue team players off the field.

“Through Jon and Maile we were able to get a permit through the county and put this on two to three times a week for the kids, in hopes that we will be able to get (an MIL) season and they’ll be able to walk right into the season,” Baldwin head coach Craig Okita said.

The smiles worn by all of the players told a big part of the story.

There are 60 players from Baldwin, Maui High, King Kekaulike and Kamehameha Maui.

They make up four teams, two composed of freshmen and sophomores who practice on Tuesdays and play their weekly game on Saturday morning, and two made up of juniors and seniors, who practice on Wednesday and play beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.

The league has been creative in making sure things are fun.

Zack Ota delivers a pitch for the blue team Saturday.

“For this (older) group we drafted kids, we let the captains draft their teams and we’re playing a three-game series,” Okita said. “This is the championship game — they’re excited about this. I mean, you can see that they’re actually playing for something, more pride, but playing for something. That’s why you see this reaction.

“It’s better than staying home and not doing anything. If we do have a season, at least they’re kind of getting in the groove. It’s tough to get that feel back and be successful.”

Okita also thanked Mayor Michael Victorino for helping the permit for the casual league to get going. He said the first permit was for February, but he got word late last week that it will be extended through March, if necessary.

“Thanks to Jon and Maile and Victorino for stepping in, because at first we were shut down,” Okita said. “Then he got involved. We just talked to the permit department and they are going to give us a permit for the month of March and it’s with the understanding that if the MIL proceeds then this will halt.”

The coaches were also happy to be out on the field — Okita stood behind the pitcher’s mound and called balls and strikes — and a moderate group of spectators watched the games with face masks and social distancing in place.

“It helps everybody, right?” Okita said. “The majority are from Baldwin, but a lot of them played (previously) for Pono. That was our thing, you got the Pono kids first and then expanded outside after that.”

Kamehameha Maui senior Dylan Almeida was happy to be part of the festivities.

“So much fun, so much fun over here, I’m glad coach Craig guys came out and got this league for all of us, knowing that we might not have a baseball season,” Almeida said. “We’re hoping that we will, but this is good to keep us all moving, still playing the sport that we play, which is good.”

Almeida said the different kind of season is crucial for the mental health of the players. He plans to play club baseball at Grand Canyon University next year and remains hopeful that the MIL season will happen.

“Super important — we use the sport to have fun, get our mind off of things, come out and spend time with our friends,” Almeida said. “Not too many people can play over here, so if we do have a season we will have the live reps we need, live at-bats and on the field as well. It’s super good.”

While Almeida has been learning on campus all year, Baldwin senior left-handed pitcher Ben Zeigler-Namoa will not return to the Wailuku campus until March 9. Zeigler-Namoa is set to play next season for national junior college power Yavapai College, which plays in a wood-bat league in Arizona.

“Honestly this has been a lot of fun, I mean we haven’t been on the field for over eight, nine months,” Zeigler-Namoa said. “It feels great for all our work on the offseason to show to these coaches. It’s great.”

Zeigler-Namoa said the few precious moments on the field in the month of February were a joy for him. He added that he will be ready should the high school season commence.

“Oh man, 100 percent,” he said. “I think that’s the main goal for this, to have us ready. Us seniors, just trying to get us somewhere and work for the next level.”

He has baseball on his mind, beyond this season and Yavapai, be it professional or four-year college.

“Honestly, it all depends, you get the luck of the game a little and that’s all you need, opportunities,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, just trying to pick up on those opportunities.”

Jamie Aloy, a state champion in 1995 for Baldwin and a standout at the University of Hawaii, said the coaches have as much fun as the players.

Kalei Awai, Leo Tomita, Dean Yamashita and Kimo Higa joined Okita and Aloy as coaches for the program. They get to the field at about 7:45 a.m. on Saturdays and are there until after 1 p.m.

“It’s an essential activity for these guys,” Aloy said. “We’ve got youth baseball, 12 and under, 13 and under, going on now. And it’s good for these high school kids to be out here right now during this time, this pandemic, what we’re all going through right now. … As soon as we could, we got these kids back out here and they’ve been smiling ever since.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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