After 11 years, the end is near, closing in with each passing hour for Tony DeSa, the baseball coach about to become a former baseball coach when his eighth season at Hilo High School comes to and end.
At the moment, little has changed. DeSa’s Vikings are in the playoffs again, that’s eight consecutive years, the entire expanse of his time at Hilo. Once again, the BIIF finals approach and that’s another tradition.
When Hilo and Waiakea battle for the BIIF championship in a three-game series starting Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Wong Stadium, the Vikings all be where they have been every season with DeSa.
What does one do just before the end of something he has always wanted to do? For a while now, as much as DeSa tries to pay attention to what’s right in front of him, the successful coach has had a few brief mental timeouts, pauses in the action as it were, realizing something he’s doing might be the last time he does that thing.
“Oh yeah, I know what you mean,” DeSa mentioned last week. “I was in Wong (Stadium), pretty sure I was the only there at the time and yeah, I thought about it.
“You look around, you take it in,” he said, “but then you have to move on.”
Hilo reached the finals again after not allowing Kealakehe a run in two games, winning 1-0 at Wong, then 8-0 Saturday.
The other night at Wong, under heavy gray skies, he was asked about the goal.
“It’s probably the same for us as it is for everyone,” DeSa said. “The standard has to be championships, what else would you play for? That doesn’t mean if you don’t win a championship you’re a failure, it means that should be your goal, see how good you can be, try to win championships.”
They won the BIIF championship three times so far in his eight years, and in every other season, they’ve been right there at the end. DeSa won’t have a conversation about success at the school without mentioning his assistants, Dave Carvalho and Josh Leopoldina — “Could not have done it without those two,” he said — but regardless of the level of competition, when you win the equivalent of two out of every three games in this sport, it puts you on the upper shelf .
After 93 BIIF games for the Vikings, DeSa’s teams have won 63 times, lost 29 and tied once. The percentage is impressive, but how about just 29 losses distributed over eight seasons, with 10 of them — more than 30 percent, coming in two 5-loss seasons, one that ended with a BIIF championship.
“It’s been more than I imagined,” he said, “I loved every minute of it, but I also have a family, college is going to be coming up in a bit and I really need to get my construction business going.”
Life intrudes. In the meantime, there’s a final chapter to include before he closes the book.
In the win at Wong on Friday, there were some errors, neither team had much luck with the opponent’s pitching and two hits in one inning turned out to be all Hilo needed. You would be exaggerating to say it was a brilliant example of spotless execution by both teams, but this is high school baseball on the Big Island, not the big leagues.
“To me,” DeSa said with a smile, as he was leaving the field, “it’s a beautiful thing, pitching and defense will win you a lot of games.”
It’s a statement proven over time, only being challenged at the highest level these days where smaller ballparks have invited more home runs and teams have shifted their tactics to acquire more long ball artists and not worry so much about bunting, moving runners along and not striking out.
“They’re losing a good one,” Kaha Wong, the celebrated Hilo batting instructor with two sons in professional baseball, said of DeSa, “Tony knows baseball and he was a heckuva player back in his day, trust me, I remember.”
They came up together at Waiakea, then their friendship deepened after graduation.
“He could really throw,” Wong said, “Tony threw in the upper 80s, he might have touched 90 every once in a while, and back in high school, that’s good stuff.
“I definitely recall him coming into games and shutting us down a couple times. I was glad I didn’t have to face him after that.”
Following high school, DeSa tagged along with his pal Kaha on trips to California to look for college opportunities as Wong had a brother living in Huntington Beach where the surf was up, the coeds were everywhere, and, of course, baseball was an attraction.
Wong went to USC and DeSa ended up at Whittier where he did a lot of everything for the Poets. He pitched, played some outfield, they moved him around where they needed him.
It was there that DeSa learned how to block out crowd noise.
“Those fans were tough,” he said. “I don’t know who they talked to or where they go their information, but they were loud and they seemed to know everything about you. In high school, I was heckled once really hard on Oahu and I almost got in a fight over it, but it taught me to screen stuff out.
“Their goal (in college), was to get in your head, to yell something you hadn’t heard, maybe make you stop and think about it, or just distract your mentality. I learned to keep a focus and just not hear that stuff, in and out, it never bothered me after that.”
That can come in handy for a high school baseball coach who has to deal with those rival parents and fans who, in a smaller area like the Big Island, may have a lot of personal knowledge about the coach, and they have no regrets about shouting it out at the top of their lungs.
“I just don’t hear it,” he said. “You can’t let that stuff distract you.”
The oddity for DeSa is that in college at the level Whittier played, the metal bats were alive, those routine fly balls would carry to the warning track or beyond and stolen bases were considered not to worth the risk because the next guy might go long.
To put it another way, playing college baseball gave DeSa an improper view of how the game should be played. To take what he learned in California and try to apply it to a Hilo High team would have been irresponsible.
“I thought you could win without bunting,” he said, laughing at the memory. “We did in college, but it wasn’t really until I got here that I realized you have to deal with what these kids can do.
“You have to play some little ball, you have to put the game in motion, use the bunt as a weapon, work on defense and pitching. Without that, you won’t be too successful at this level.”
He has been a disciple of Wong’s instructional approach, urges his players to go to school at Wong’s batting cages and can tell with one swing if other players on other teams have been coached by Wong.
“It’s about the legs and hips, how they use them when they swing,” DeSa said. “You can tell immediately.”
He used the help of his former rival and longtime friend to build teams at Hilo High, but after eight years at the school, with one more championship series remaining, there’s never been a time like the present, because the last time around only comes once.
And that time has arrived in traditional fashion with Waiakea and Hilo facing off once again.
Results will be determined this weekend but in a big way, with both of these schools and people like Wong and DeSa, baseball will come out a winner once again.
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