KEALAKEKUA — Kamehameha is going for its eighth straight BIIF softball crown this season, and with its core intact — losing only two seniors — the Warriors have to be the odds on favorite to win the Division II title once again, right?
Kohala and Konawaena, D-II contenders in their own right, would like to argue otherwise.
The Wildcats hosted the Cowgirls to open the season on Thursday, with Kohala securing the narrow 2-1 victory, setting the tone for what should be a competitive year in D-II as teams jostle for position in the standings.
Right away there was a noticeable difference between the two schools once they took the field. Kohala was led by their ace pitcher, Mikayla Kekoa, who recently helped the Cowgirls volleyball team win their first BIIF title. Meanwhile, Konawaena was without Shaylann Marie Grace, their ace inside the circle for the last two seasons.
Grace transferred to Saint Francis on Oahu over the summer, leaving the door open for Andi Uemura to take over the No. 1 spot in the rotation.
Uemura was the No. 2 pitcher for the Wildcats last season, but did not see much time in the circle, with Grace starting nearly every game.
“I will definitely see a lot more playing time as a pitcher and it will provide a lot more time for improvement,” Uemura said. “This is my senior year so I will enjoy it. But we also miss Marie. We are all really proud of her.”
Uemura — who is also a standout second baseman for the Wildcats — had an exciting offseason of her own, signing to play college ball at Yakima Valley.
“I contacted a lot of coaches in the NWAC (Northwest Atlantic Conference) and they seemed the most excited to have me,” Uemura said. “They want me as a second baseman and the coach told me to keep working hard through high school.”
Kekoa was also the most productive hitter on the day with a solo home run in the sixth inning and an RBI double in the seventh to put her team ahead for good.
“I think I did alright today but I definitely need to work a little more” said Kekoa, who had just arrived back on the Big Island the day before after a week in Las Vegas. “This was pretty good for the first game of the season. My inside rise was working well and the defense had my back.”
Defense is something that Kohala head coach Terrence Alcoran praised after the game. Alcoran lost five seniors after last season and started three freshman against the Wildcats.
“I started freshmen at third base, second base and left field and they all did pretty well,” Alcoran said. “And Pilila’i Kaai held her ground well at shortstop. She made some good plays and will be tough at the position this year.”
Konawaena’s bats struggled against Kekoa, who finished with 11 strikeouts in the complete game performance.
Grace was a big part of the offense as well, but now the Wildcats will turn to sophomore catcher Anna Medeiros, not only for offense, but for leadership along with Uemura.
Medeiros knocked in the lone run of the day for Konawaena with an RBI single to right in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie the game at 1-1.
“Anna is ahead of her time and knows the game really well,” said Konawaena first year head coach Wesley Takimota — a Konawaena alumni who came out of retirement after coaching baseball and softball for 10-plus years at Kealakehe. “She takes charge behind the plate and as a hitter, the knowledge is there. She is easy to coach.”
Takimoto decided to come out of retirement to help provide some stability in the coaching ranks. Konawaena has had three head coaches in the last three years — four if you count the work of athletic director Kellye Krug, who helped coach the program at the end of the last two seasons.
“I have been watching this program over the last couple of years and I thought maybe they could use some help, so I applied and got the job,” Takimoto said. “I have always wanted to finish my coaching career at Konawaena.”
Takimoto got a taste of what Kohala and Konawaena bring to the table when they play each other. In the BIIF semifinals last season, the two teams battled in a doubleheader, with the Wildcats winning the first game 7-6, before taking the second game 3-2 in extra innings.
Alcoran was happy to start the season off strong.
“I really wanted to win this first game,” he said. “It was a fabulous game. It is always close when we play Konawaena.”
Next up for Kohala is a home doubleheader against Pahoa on Saturday starting at 11 a.m. The Wildcats will play a road doubleheader against Pahoa on Wednesday, with a 5 p.m. start at Pahoa District Park.
The Cowgirls will get their first crack at Kamehameha in an away game on Tuesday, March 2. The Wildcats will square off at home against the Warriors for the first time on Saturday, March 9.