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College baseball: Steering, Spain to spearhead Vuls

  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald
    UH-Hilo's Phillip Steering batted .421 last year.
  • UH-Hilo photo
    UH-Hilo's Phillip Steering batted .421 last year.

It’s always encouraging for UH-Hilo baseball coach Kallen Miyataki when he receives calls from pro scouts asking about his players, and a recent query from the Dodgers’ organization was all the more uplifting because it didn’t involve record-setting first baseman Phillip Steering.

No, 6-foot-6 sophomore right-hander Dylan Spain is catching scouts’ attention these days, so Miyataki always has to be ready to answer the question, “When can I come see him play?”

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The opening curtain for Steering, Spain and the 2018 Vulcans baseball team will be drawn Thursday at Wong Stadium as UHH greets Augustana (S.D.) for a four-game series, and with the program looking to rebound from an 8-31-1 season, it’s understandable Miyataki is cautious.

“All in all, I think the boys are ready,” he said. “We’re not going to start off fast, we’re going to start off slow.

“We have a little more depth, which we’re happy about, but we don’t have as many players as usual.”

While Miyataki thinks he has a burgeoning ace in Spain — a player he calls “the real deal” — he knows he has a cornerstone at first base in Steering.

Miyataki has to think back, way back to his playing days with the Vuls in the early 1980s, to remember the last time UHH returned a position player with Steering’s accomplishments.

The senior, a native of Lake Forest, Calif., hit .421 in 2017, an average that led the Pacific West Conference and was second in Vulcans history. His on-base-percentage (.537) and slugging percentage (.683) were school records, and he even stole 10 bases.

“Coaching a guy like Phillip, well, that’s one of the reasons we are in this profession,” Miyataki, a longtime assistant entering his fifth season as skipper, said in a release. “His work ethic is unbelievable. He has made himself into a very good hitter. He hit .224 as a freshman, .327 as a sophomore and then as a junior became the best hitter in the conference, in a league where there are a lot of guys who can really swing it.”

After Steering, Keaau graduate Jonathan Segovia’s .298 average was second-best on the team in 2017.

Pencil Steering into the No. 2 slot in the order, perhaps ahead of a couple of first-year players, catcher Kamalu Neal, who redshirted last season, and third baseman RJ Romo, a transfer from Rio Hondo College (Calif.).

Spain, who gets the ball Thursday night, is the kind of under-the-radar prospect that Miyataki hopes to keep bringing into the fold. Slowed by injury and illness, he tossed only nine innings in his career for Saint Louis Schools on Oahu, before sprouting some last season as a true freshman.

The numbers (1-6, 5.64 ERA) might not show it, but Spain was a control artist, walking just 11 batters in 52 2/3 innings. With a fastball that Miyataki says touches the low 90s, one area that Spain presumably would like to improve upon is his ability to miss bats. He struck out 25 a season ago.

“He has the potential to be one of the top pitchers in the PacWest,” Miyataki said. “He has control, and he can attack.”

Redshirt freshman Kyle Alcorn is slated to start UHH’s second game and Miyataki was impressed with the way the way he handled USC hitters during offseason workouts, saying he “hopes (Kyle) develops from the experience.”

Also looking for development is Kamehameha-Hawaii graduate Brandyn Lee-Lehano, a 6-5 right-hander who made eight appearances as a true freshman.

“He has all the tools,” Miyataki said.

Lee-Lehano is scheduled to start the Vulcans’ third game on Friday night and beyond that much of the pitching will be done by committee.

Two names to watch out of the bullpen are Deric Valoroso and Thomas Warren.

The outfield returns intact with Segovia, a senior, Dylan Sugimoto (.261 and nine stolen bases in 2017) and Kyle Yamada (.377 on-base percentage), and the latter two are capable of batting leadoff.

The Vulcans will welcome back Edison Sakata, a three-year starter at shortstop who redshirted last season, though Miyataki called the situation “interesting” because Gavin Palagonia is also pushing for playing time.

It might make for a good trivia question, because of all their players last season, it was infielder Jacob Grijalva who led the team in RBIs with 26 as a senior. Steering finished with 24.

Mana Manago, who started eight games last year at second base, is the early front-runner for that spot.

Kamehameha-Hawaii graduate Micah Carter and Compton (Calif.) College transfer Adrian Poot will push for playing time at designated hitter.

“We will play a lot of guys,” Miyataki predicted. “It keeps everyone involved. Guys will get a chance to prove themselves. We have a real good mix this year, a diverse group. The players that we are bringing in each year are better and better.”

UH-Hilo men’s golf coach Earl Tamiya makes two promises ahead of the 27th annual Amer Ari Intercollegiate.

No. 1: Tamiya will be sure to do a wind dance ahead of Thursday’s first round, hopeful that a strong gust picks up at Waikoloa King’s Course, providing the Vulcans will something of an equalizer.

“We always bring the wind machine,” Tamiya said with a smile

And second, the veteran coach predicts UHH will “finish top among the Division II field.”

That’s a safe bet, of course, because, as usual, the Vuls are surrounded by Division I powers and represent the only D-II presence.

Among the three schools ranked among the nation’s top 10 is No. 1 Oklahoma State. In all, six of 18 teams are ranked in the top 20, including 13th-ranked Texas Tech, the defending Amer Ari champion.

Five teams have been at every tournament since 1991 — Oregon, Texas Christian, Southern California, UH-Manoa and the Vuls, and numerous future PGA stars have played the Amer Ari, including Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar and Notah Begay.

All-Americans in the field include Doug Ghim of Texas, Norman Xiong (Oregon), Scottie Scheffler (Texas) and Justin Suh (USC). Scheffler finished fourth at the NCAA championships last year and Xiong won the Phil Mickelson Award, given to the top newcomer in college golf.

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“We look forward to this each season,” Tamiya said in a release. “We enjoy putting on one of the best tournaments in the country. I feel like those who play in this tournament will never forget the experience, including our own players.”

Starting at 7:30 a.m., 18 holes will be played Thursday through Saturday.