Maryknoll's march to 2015 D2 state title was a work in progress

The 2015 edition of the Maryknoll baseball team put together an overall record of 16-2, won the program's fourth straight Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II crown and ultimately, went on to win its third consecutive state championship that spring.

But it certainly didn't come easy. Not by a long shot. And then-Spartans' coach Randy Yamashiro is quick to point that out.

"I think we were still trying to create a championship-caliber program and they were still learning curves and still things that our guys had to realize," Yamashiro said during a recent phone interview.

In addition to 10 graduated seniors, two others did not return to the team following the state championship-winning 2014 season. There was also the matter of building chemistry with the few new players.

"Coming out of community leagues, some of these guys weren't all-stars and they didn't know how to play at a championship level, so we had to kind of create a fundamental base for them and then teach them the game. Up until that point, they were learning the game and then what they had to do that year was figure out how to perpetuate that and how to be consistent, so in creating that championship-caliber program they had to go through their own learning curves," Yamashiro explained.

Maryknoll's 2015 roster was made up of 19 total players — five seniors, six juniors, seven sophomores and one freshman — nearly a dozen fewer than the 30 players that Yamashiro carried the season prior.

"The seniors that year were with us from their freshman year, so they had already experienced winning two state championships," said Yamashiro, who noted that 2015 was the first year of existence for the Spartans' JV program.

"So we didn't have numbers like we had before. We wanted our younger freshmen to develop, too, so it was kind of touch-and-go. Even though we won, it was still touch-and-go. What we had to do was keep the kids on track and bring up a bunch of younger kids," he added.

Just two games into the ILH season, Maryknoll suffered its first loss, 4-3, to Saint Francis. It rebounded by winning its next eight games — including a 5-0 win over the Saints — but a 3-1 win over Damien at Hans L'Orange Park on March 20, 2015 proved to be most beneficial to the team in a number of ways.

For starters, there was the complete-game pitching performance by sophomore Jarred Kaneshiro, who scattered six hits and three walks with six strikeouts in just his second start of the year.

"He went seven innings that game and he never did do that before," Yamashiro said of the 5-foot-7, right-handed Kaneshiro. "I remember he showed us a lot in the preseason — a lot of promise — but what he did in that game, or the games thereafter, solidified that he was somebody to help us compete and he was only a sophomore."

It was an especially encouraging outing from Kaneshiro after he went just four innings and issued five walks in the loss to Saint Francis, his first start that season.

"I told him, ‘You need to make adjustments. You cannot throw a thousand percent on the field, you have to be smart about it,' and he listened," Yamashiro recalled.

Yamashiro knew that if his team was going to defend its state title, he would need to develop more pitching beyond ace Joshua Muneno, who was selected as All-Hawaii D2 Player of the Year as a junior in 2014.

"We had Muneno back then, but we needed more pitching. If you're gonna go to the state tournament, you need four to five guys and we had to find guys to step up and I believe that particular game, Jarred really kind of found himself, or kind of realized what he could do," Yamashiro said.

The first inning was usually telling of how Kaneshiro's starts would go, Yamashiro pointed out. Damien loaded the bases in the top of the first that Friday afternoon, but Kaneshiro was able to work out of the jam unscathed.

"He learned how to get out of jams. He watched Muneno and we worked in the bullpen on certain things — it wasn't necessarily about pitching mechanics, more about gamesmanship and making adjustments instead of just going out there like Little League and just playing — so he had to mature," Yamashiro added.

And he did, seemingly. Kaneshiro went on to record three more complete-game wins that season and finished with a 6-0 record and an earned run average of 0.19.

"We implemented what we worked on in the bullpen, he made an adjustment and was more focused," Yamashiro said. "I remember telling him, ‘Muneno was just like you and he learned how to be focused,' and I like to take our older guys and have them talk to the younger guys and tell them what they went through and teach them."

The lone run that Kaneshiro surrendered came in the fifth inning, when Damien broke the scoreless tie on Grayson Bueno's two-out RBI-single. Muneno, who was playing left field that day, saved another run from coming home with an outfield assist on his strike to home plate to get the third out of the inning.

Yamashiro said he thought about playing Muneno in center field on days that he was not pitching, but ultimately — in the hopes of somewhat saving his legs — decided to play him in left.

"We needed him to pitch the bulk of our innings and so I just couldn't see him going to center field, but he was like a center fielder in left right, or another right fielder with an arm playing left, so we tried to not strain him but just let him go and when he threw that guy out, I was like, ‘OK, we made the right call,' " Yamashiro laughed.

The lead was brief for the Monarchs, as the Spartans manufactured the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the frame.

Neal Nakasone and Muneno drew walks to lead off the Maryknoll half of the fifth. A sacrifice bunt by Jason Nakamura moved both runners into scoring position and a balk by the Damien pitcher allowed Taylor Hoe (the courtesy runner for Nakasone, the catcher) to score and pushed Muneno to third. Muneno came home on Kaliko Thomas' sacrifice fly to center to put the Spartans ahead, 2-1.

"We went back to a strategy that worked for us in 2013 and I said, ‘OK, we're gonna bunt, we're gonna hit-and-run so you guys gotta be ready' and we had to do other things to kind get us back on track, like base-running, stealing third, bunting and running — basically executing," Yamashiro detailed. "If we can execute our plays, then we're giving ourselves a chance, so we went back to that 2013-2014 philosophy and said, ‘OK, we're gonna build up from there.' "

Even Maryknoll's insurance run it scored in the sixth inning was a result of cashing in on a Damien miscue. After Cade Ohata led off with a walk, he took second on a passed ball and moved over to third on a ground out to second. Two batters later, a pop-up behind second base was dropped by the Monarchs, which would have served as the third out, instead it allowed Ohara to score.

"I told them that we could win without a barrage of hits and all that kinds of glitz and glamor kind of stuff, (but) we had to learn to play the game, to play baseball and about other components of hitting — in-game adjustments, how to pick your pitches, how to take advantage and that kind of stuff — because they didn't know how to do that yet, so there was a lot of growing pains and a lot of self-reflection," Yamashiro disclosed. "Even up to the state tournament we were still learning and still developing."

Damien threatened in the top of the seventh against Kaneshiro. It put a couple of runners aboard and had the tying run in the form of Bueno on first, but Shiloh Kaeo — the Monarchs' powerful third batter — at-bat, Nakasone picked off Bueno on a backdoor throw to end the game.

"He would work it out with the first baseman and he would check with me to be safe, but I told him that, ‘If I don't give you the sign to be safe then go for it, you got it,' so we let him go," Yamashiro said of Nakasone, who 5-foot-4 senior who often went from behind the plate to the mound in end-of-game situations.

"He was our closer, our stopper and he also did a good job of calming the pitchers down, but he had a knack of picking guys off because I think when he was a freshman or sophomore we taught him some stuff and being a small little guy, he liked contact, he liked being aggressive," Yamashiro added. "And he could throw."

Despite being limited to just two hits by the two Monarchs' pitchers they faced that day, the Spartans did enough with those two singles, seven walks, three hit batsmen, a balk and two errors committed by their opponent to win the game.

"A lot of the stuff that I was saying to them all along — how we can win with pitching and defense — basically came to light that day, so it was kind of good that it turned out that way so that the kids could learn," Yamashiro summarized.

The win pushed Maryknoll to 4-1 and dropped Damien to 2-2.

The Spartans followed that up with a 9-2 victory over Hanalani the very next day. They went on to win a string of eight consecutive games until a 6-2 loss to Saint Francis on Apr. 7. That loss proved to be a well-timed kick in the pants that Yamashiro's squad needed that that juncture of the season.

"It made more players have that realization of what you have to do, or what you're doing wrong, or what you did, or what you didn't do and that was very important because they realized that they can't just step up to the plate and swing the bat," he said.

Maryknoll bounced back by winning its next four games, capped by its 8-6 win over PAC-5 to wrap-up the ILH D2 tournament title and overall championship on Apr. 28.

The Spartans were seeded first in the eight-team state tournament and opened against Oahu Interscholastic Association runner-up Kapolei in the quarterfinals. Both team's starting pitchers that day — Muneno for Maryknoll and lefty Ekolu Young for the Hurricanes — went deep into the game. Muneno went the distance and got the win in the come-from-behind victory, while Young lasted 6 1/3 innings and was saddled with the loss.

Maryknoll plated three runs in the bottom of the seventh to rally past Kapolei by a final score of 6-5.

"That kid (Young) was tough and he was hitting his spots and pitching us tough. Kudos to him and their coaching staff because our guys were swinging at balls trying to make something out of nothing. Eventually we made him pitch tougher, we got guys on base and that's where we started the rally," Yamashiro recalled.

The Spartans were pushed again the following night by fourth-seeded Kauai in the semifinal round, but held on for a 4-3 win to give them a chance at a three-peat against OIA champion and No. 3 seed Aiea in the title game.

Maryknoll never trailed Na Alii in the tournament final and went on to win by a score of 8-4 to capture their third D2 state championship in as many years — all of them under Yamashiro.

"Somebody made a comment that that particular team looked like a D1 team and I took that as a compliment. I was very satisfied because now they understood what it took to be a true champion, from all the adversity, all the self-reflection they triumphed.

Just two days after his complete-game win over Kapolei, Muneno went six innings against Aiea, the most he was allotted due to the tournament's pitch-count rules, before Nakasone recorded the final three outs.

"It was nerve-racking so when the last out was recorded there was so much relief, so much emotion went in me and my coaching staff that we all were just drained because we had to go through all of that and when the kids were getting their medals we were looking back and we got emotional," Yamashiro said. "I'm glad that we did it, I'm glad that we went through this and it was so much satisfaction and so much relief that they got it and that they were gonna leave the program on a high note. I was just a proud papa, real proud."

Nakasone, along with shortstop Kahi Hinano and third baseman Jason Nakamura were selected to the All-Tournament Team, along with pitchers Kaneshiro and Muneno, who was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the state tournament.

Muneno put together a win-loss record of 9-0 in his 11 appearances that season. In 64 1/3 innings pitched, he recorded 46 strikeouts against 17 walks and allowed just 19 earned runs on 62 hits with a 2.07 ERA. Muneno was tabbed as ILH D2 Player of the Year and repeated as All-Hawaii D2 Player of the Year.

The Spartans had eight players recognized as either first- or second-team All-ILH. In addition to Muneno, they were represented by Kaneshiro, Nakasone, Hirano and designated hitter Jonah Chinen on the All-Hawaii First Team.

Maryknoll moved up to D1 for the 2016 season and finished with a 2-14 record. Yamashiro stepped down after that season, ahead of the arrival of his son, Rylan, who was born in December of that year.

Yamashiro, a former scout, is still involved with baseball through the Island Movers program as well as a few other ventures, but as for a return to coaching at the prep ranks?

"I do miss it. Yeah, I do, of course," he said. "But more importantly, I have a family now and I have to help raise my son. Eventually, yes, but I don't know at what level. Being a former scout and dealing with college guys and pro ball, I kind of want to stick to that level, but I wouldn't rule out returning to the high school ranks, but I just don't know."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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