Vuls’ homegrown talents coming into their own

  • UHH photo Waiakea grad Casey Yamauchi, pictured, and Kamehameha-Hawaii alum Brandyn Lee-Lehano, inset, took different routes to reliability for UH-Hilo baseball.

UH-Hilo coach Kallen Miyataki has mined the local ranks to find a middle reliever in Brandyn Lee-Lehano, who needed a bit of polishing, and a freshman infielder in Casey Yamauchi, who has been like microwave popcorn — immediately good.

Lee-Lehano, a 2016 Kamehameha graduate, appeared in eight games as a freshman and 12 as a sophomore. The 6-foot-5 right-hander already has eight appearances, tied for the team lead.

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He holds a 0-0 record with a 6.46 ERA in 15 1/3 innings. On Feb. 16, he gave up five runs and recorded two outs. Take away that outing and his ERA drops nearly two full runs.

“When we were looking at his size, we knew the potential was there,” Miyataki said. “It was a matter of him learning to pitch at this level. He’s at 90 mph and has touched 92 a couple of times. He’s understanding of changing speed is very important.”

Lee-Lehano points out that his growth hasn’t only been on the mound, something he credits to his coach.

“It’s humility and maturity,” he said. “He helped me a lot with the mental side of the game and always being mentally ready. He talks a lot about our approaches to pitching, and I think that helped me a lot because if my mental game is strong my performance tends to follow.”

Over the weekend, his last two performances have been solid against Fresno Pacific. He pitched a combined three innings, gave up two hits and struck out five. Even better, Lee-Lehano didn’t issue any walks.

Lee-Lehano is not the most vocal Vulcan, but he’s finding his voice as he grows more comfortable.

“I’m also trying to take more of a leadership role this year since I am an upperclassman,” he said. “It’s important for me to lead by example and represent my hometown with pride.

“Everyone seems more confident, and this team is closer than previous teams. We all believe in one another and walk around with a small chip because we know if we play together as a team we can beat anyone.”

There’s sort of an unseen motivation for the local ball players. Their parents and family are at games. Someone like Yamauchi, a 2018 Waiakea graduate, grew up on the baseball field and in front of Miyataki, who’s kept an eye on his second baseman for a long time.

“The Big Island has a lot of talent,” Miyataki said. “I’m local, and I’m from here. I understand some kids will go away if they can. But from our side, we need to mark and go after the local kids and always compete for them.

“Casey is a battler, and he makes adjustments really quick. Those 90-mph fastballs don’t scare him. He enjoys that, and adjusts to changeups and breaking balls. His approach to hitting is tremendous.”

Yamauchi stands 5 feet 9 and weighs 155 pounds. But looks are deceiving with him. He’s wiry strong and has excellent bat control.

In 67 at-bats, he has four walks and two strikeouts, the only Vulcan with more walks than strikeouts. That’s a clear sign that he hasn’t been overmatched. He’s adjusted to college pitching and the game’s grind.

“Coming into college, the pitchers threw a little harder and practices were a lot tougher, so I had to get mentally tougher to handle the amount of work we put in,” he said. “The biggest challenge has been the grind. Lifting and batting before a long night of practice every day in a four-game series are much tougher than high school.”

He has a .284 batting average and .319 on-base percentage. He compensates with superior stats in another category. He’s 8 of 9 in stolen base attempts, a team high.

Miyataki knows he landed a gem in Yamauchi, who’s double-play partner, Trayden Tamiya, from Waiakea is taking a redshirt season to heal a shoulder injury.

“Casey’s fire inside is very huge, and his desire to compete is unbelievable,” Miyataki said. “When you watch him at practice, he always goes hard. Nobody wanted him, but we kept on him. Then we knew we had to go out and get him.”

The Vulcans start a formidable conference road trip against Concordia and Asuza Pacific on Saturday. They’ll need middle relief pitching. Through 17 games, they’ve got one complete game. They’ll also need Yamauchi to spark the offense.

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“Brandyn has always worked hard. We’ve talked about things he wants to do in his life,” Miyataki said. “It’s important to him to graduate and work on getting a degree (kinesiology) in his life.

“He’s a good one, and so is Casey.”

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