It was a championship run filled with more ups and downs than a roller coaster.
But Kauai’s boys in red found ways to “survive and advance” — to quote the heralded men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano from the famed North Carolina State team that despite long odds won the 1983 NCAA championship.
“After all is said and done, these boys here have built a lot of character in themselves and as a team to become state champions,” head coach Hank Ibia said on Sunday.
Kauai High School’s varsity baseball team returned home Sunday morning from Honolulu.
The team was greeted at the Lihue Airport by cheers from dozens of family members, friends and supporters. In return, the team presented the crowd with the Division II championship trophy.
“It’s unreal,” said senior infielder Sam Nakata. “Last night, it really didn’t sink in. It’s starting to now. You get to see all the fans back home, (get) a warm greeting like this. Being around all these great people, it’s amazing.”
In dramatic fashion, Kauai High clinched its third D2 baseball state title with a 5-4 win over No. 3 Damien Memorial of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu in the championship game Saturday at Les Murakami Stadium.
The Red Raiders had a three-run lead, then saw it slip through their fingers as the Monarchs were up a run after six innings.
“When we got that 3-0 lead, it felt really good. But when we lost it, we said to each other when we got in that circle to just believe,” said junior catcher Skyler Sadora, who hit a 2-RBI double in the third inning for that three-run lead. “We looked in each others’ eyes, and we just went.”
With a runner on third, but one out away from losing the title match, sophomore starting pitcher Jacob Borrero — who moved to infielder when he was relieved in the fifth inning — hit an RBI single. He slid into first base, and with emotions running high, he slammed his helmet to the ground.
He was ejected and was initially called out at first base, which would have ended the top of the seventh with a 4-4 tie. After deliberation between the umpires and coaches, Borrero was still ejected but the out was removed and the top of the seventh continued.
Borrero said he’s usually not so excitable during a game, but he couldn’t contain himself in the moment.
“Slamming my helmet wasn’t because of anger. It was mainly because of excitement, and the hype really got to me on that,” he said.
Borrero added: “I don’t really show my emotions on the field, but that one really got to me. If I were to do something different, I wish I didn’t slam my helmet so I can be in that last inning with my team.”
Kauai would go on to get a go-ahead run later in the inning. With the bases loaded, sophomore relief pitcher Keoua Sibayan reached on a Monarchs error, and senior infielder Sam Nakata scored from third.
The Monarchs then hit into three consecutive grounders in the bottom of the seventh, and the Red Raiders celebrated on the field.
“It feels really good. We worked really hard for this,” Sadora said. “The boys just believed in us, and our coaches and our family (believed). To the Lord above for bringing us here, thank you.”
En route to the D2 championship, the unseeded Kauai High defeated three seeded teams.
“We just stuck together, and we just believed,” Nakata said. “It feels even sweeter to take out three of the four seeded teams. It was great.”
Before beating No. 3 Damien in the title game, Kauai first defeated No. 4 Molokai of the Maui Interscholastic League in the opening round Thursday at Hans L’Orange Field in eight innings, 4-3.
The Red Raiders got the go-ahead run on a squeeze bunt by sophomore outfielder Blake Probasco to score the runner from third.
In the semifinals, Kauai defeated the defending D2 champion and No. 1 seed Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation in 10 innings, 2-1.
This time, the Red Raiders got the go-ahead run on a Warriors error. With runners at first and third and with two outs, Sadora reached on a fielders choice and sophomore infielder Tyler Oshima scored from third on the errant throw.
Then again on Saturday, the Red Raiders took the lead on an error.
“We took one game at a time,” Ibia said. “In the championship game, we were down and then we came back. Right there, I said, ‘You know what? If we just stay in the same area we are and we just stay close, our chances are good. … I guess destiny was set. Thing happened right for us.”
A concern going into the tournament was pitching. Before flying out to Oahu, Ibia said during practice that he didn’t have any experienced pitchers.
On the biggest stage, they would do enough to give their team a chance.
“Yesterday, I had two sophomores pitching on the mound. That was pretty big for them at this stage,” Ibia said. “As young as they are and going to the championship game, the kids did it all by themselves. I try to put them in the right position at the right time. But overall, they played well.”
In the opening game, Borrero gave up just one run in five innings. Junior reliever Christian Manera would close it out with allowing just one hit and no runs in the last 2 1/3 innings.
In the semifinals against KS-Hawaii, Manera went the first 6 2/3 innings allowing just one run on four hits. Sophomore reliever Ricky Rego then went on to throw the remaining 3 1/3 innings to shutout the Warriors.
In the title match, Borrero threw the first five-plus innings. At the time he was relieved, Kauai had a 4-3 lead. Sibayan went to get the win.
“It feels incredible,” Borrero said of taking the D2 crown. “Just knowing that we’re a very young team going into this tournament, not even a seeded team and coming to win this game, it was very important to us.”
For Nakata, winning the championship was the culmination of his varsity career after falling short in the previous two tournaments.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “Being my third year at the state tournament, and this year being able to bring it home, mission accomplished. … Perfect way to got out — with a bang.”
In addition, four Red Raiders were named to the Division II all-tournament team. Nakata was named Most Outstanding Player, as voted for by the media.
“I’m just thankful that they voted me Outstanding Player,” Nakata said of the accolade.
“I just went up there, did what I had to do, be me and help the team in whatever way to hopefully come out on top with a W.”
Sadora made the all-tourney list at catcher, Borrero was named as one of the standout infielders and Manera was recognized for his pitching.
“That feels good, for all that hard work that we put in, it’s really good,” Sadora said.
Kauai High finished its season with a 13-3 overall record, going 13-3 in the Kauai Interscholastic Federation regular season en route to winning a fourth straight league title.
“They say that if you do things right, good things happen,” Ibia said.
“Like I said, it was up and down. Trying to do things right for the team, for the school and for the island of Kauai. Everything fell in place.
“Today, this was a pretty special greeting that we had,” he continued. “The first two (championships), it was OK. We won, but this year’s one is a little bit different with more people out here for us. With this bunch of kids, it was good for them — to understand that you need to appreciate the people around us. Just enjoy the moment right now. And if you want more, you got to work harder for more. We got to work hard.”