Heroes’ welcome

LIHUE — After their flights were delayed more than six hours, Kauai’s boys returned home exhausted.

But upon arrival and crossing the gates to baggage claim, the team was pleasantly greeted by cheers which perked them back up.

“We were pretty tired. But actually right now, I’m not that tired,” said Nainoa Cardinez, who plays shortstop, pitcher and catcher. “Coming home to everybody like this, I’m pretty happy. It’s exciting.”

“It feels good knowing that all these people, they watched us and they supported us and everything,” he added.

The Kawaihau Community Little Little League baseball team returned home Monday evening. Dozens of family members, friends and supporters mobbed the baggage claim area at the Lihue Airport with elation.

“It’s breathtaking,” said Kawaihau head coach Justin Malina after being welcomed at the airport. “It’s giving back to Kauai. It’s just an honor for everyone to come out and to show their support for us.”

The Kawaihau team, based in Kapaa, has been away for more than three weeks — since the Junior Baseball Western Regional Tournament in Vancouver, Wash., which began Aug. 3.

After claiming regionals, the team flew straight to Taylor, Mich., for the Junior League Baseball World Series Tournament which began Aug 14.

Play ended Sunday when Kawaihau LL lost to Shing-Ming Junior LL of Chinese Taipei in the tournament final, which was televised on ESPNU.

“I just told them, ‘Have fun. You guys are on TV. Have fun. Don’t worry about the game,” Malina said. “I just said, ‘Hey, we’re on TV, so show shakas.’ … And look at their faces. They’re smiling. And the announcers said, ‘Look, these kids are losing 9-1 and they’re smiling their faces off.’ That’s what it’s all about — having fun.”

Prior to that loss, Kawaihau had been unbeaten since the Lihue Baseball League Da Bash Memorial Day tournament in May.

Along the way during the summer, the Kauai squad won the Hawaii State Junior Baseball Championship in Hilo in late July, won the Junior Baseball Western Regional Tournament to represent the West region at the Junior League Baseball World Series Tournament, and then won the United States title in that tournament.

Kawaihau defeated Padre LL of Texas for the US crown.

“Just teamwork. There’s a lot of trust with these boys, and it means a lot to be playing with them,” Kaimi Malina said about the win streak, who plays catcher, shortstop and pitcher.

Coach Malina said aside from being away from home for as long as they were, competing at the Mainland tournaments was worthwhile.

“The only thing bad about it was being away from home and missing the home food,” the coach said. “Other than that, everything was wonderful. What can you do? Best in the nation and second-best in the world? You can’t argue about that.”

Team parent Tiffany Kauai, whose son Trevor plays for Kawaihau, was with the team in Michigan to support Kauai’s boys.

“I’m excited for the boys to be home with our family, just to celebrate this big accomplishment for them,” Kaui said. “I’m actually blessed to have the opportunity to be with my son and the boys, and follow them and cheer them on. It was just a big blessing to be able to be there.”

She added: “They’ve been together for, I don’t know, six years. They’re awesome boys — very talented. They always pull through and stick together as a team.”

Back to reality for the boys, however, as they will return to school.

“All of us go to different schools, so we’re going to be playing high school against each other. So, that should be fun,” said Kawaihau second baseman Keoua Sibayan.

As for Kawaihau’s future, Malina said that is to be determined.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think I’m going to take a break from coaching,” the coach said. “I’m sure these kids, the next step is high school baseball. But as far as community, we don’t know. We just got to see what happens.”

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