There was immediate strong interest on both sides between Waiakea junior Safea Villaruz-Mauai and UH coach Mike Trapasso, who only needed one look to offer a scholarship on the spot.
Villaruz-Mauai is the latest member of Kaha Wong’s Big Island Wooden Bat League program to join the BIIF-to-Manoa baseball pipeline, recently giving a verbal commitment to the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
Kamehameha senior pitcher Tai Atkins also verbally committed to UH, which lists 2018 Kamehameha graduate DallasJ Duarte and 2016 Kamehameha grad Daylen Calicdan on the roster.
Last month, Trapasso and assistant coach Mike Brown visited the Big Island to scout Wong’s players. (Per NCAA rules, Trapasso isn’t allowed to comment until a player signs a national letter of intent.)
Villaruz-Mauai, a left-handed hitting outfielder, grew up watching the Rainbows and wanted to follow in the footsteps of former ‘Bows Kolten Wong, Quentin Torres-Costa, and Chayce Ka’aua, charter members of the BIWBL program.
“It has always been my childhood dream to play there,” he said. “Watching Kolten, Quintin, and Chayce play there made me want to go there and play, and from there my love for the ’Bows just grew.
“I actually didn’t talk to coach Trap when I committed. It was the other coach, Mike Brown from Mississippi State, and he explained to me that he loves my game, and basically the plan is to go there and hit bombs.”
Last season, Villaruz-Mauai made his varsity debut and was named to the All-BIIF honorable mention list. He batted a combined 3 for 7 against Campbell, Kailua, and Baldwin at the HHSAA tournament.
But it was during the summer when he made even bigger noise with his bat, traveling on the Nate Trosky National team to play at the USA Baseball Tournament and Perfect Game tournament, two of the most prestigious showcases. He also went with Kaha Wong’s club travel team to play at the Prospect Wire tournament in San Diego.
Villaruz-Mauai led the San Diego tourney with seven steals and two home runs and was ranked No. 2 in the Prospect Wire standings, which included club teammates Kalai Rosario, a Waiakea junior outfielder, who was No. 1, and Maui Ahuna, a Hilo junior infielder, who was No. 4.
There was the likely possibility that offers from big-name programs would have arrived. But Villaruz-Mauai already had his mind set. That type of firm commitment is no surprise to his dad, Kapela Mauai.
“I kind of wanted him to hold out, but when UH offered, he jumped on it,” Mauai said. “That’s what it is. He idolized Kolten and Kean Wong, and it was pretty much his dream as a little kid to play baseball for Manoa.
“He’s been going to Kaha since he was 8 years old. His mindset really changed. Kaha always emphasizes hard work, and that it always pays off. He picked up a good work ethic, and his hand speed, bat speed, and outlook on baseball all changed because of Kaha Wong.”
It also helps that Wong has a good relationship with Trapasso and Trosky, who runs camps and showcases and has a wealth of MLB and college connections. Trosky runs a college showcase every December at Wong Stadium. When MLB amateur scouts want to look at Big Island players, Wong is their point contact.
“Coach Kaha helps me by bringing in scouts to come and see the local talent,” Villaruz-Mauai said. “He helped me the most on being able to commit to Manoa because without him I know that baseball in Hawaii would be such a small sport. He put us on the map.”
Villaruz-Mauai also credited his youth coaches, particularly Pony coach Chris Honda, and his parents, Kapela and Tamar Villaruz, because he’s aware that someone has to foot his summer traveling bills.
But luckily for the young slugger, he didn’t have to travel to impress the Rainbow coaching staff. All he had to do was hit some bombs.