WAIMEA — Waimea High School senior Naomi “Omi” Toki committed to McKendree University last week, and will be able to bowl on the McBear Women’s Bowling team when she leaves for Lebanon, Illinois in mid-August.
“I didn’t get an athletic scholarship,” Toki said. “It was an academic scholarship, but I get the same amount for each year that I’m there. I do get to bowl, though.”
When the acceptance letters started arriving, Toki was faced with going through the acceptances, many coming with scholarships attached to them.
“McKendree was my second choice when I started applying to colleges,” Toki said. “It wasn’t my first choice. In the responses, there were three colleges — Cumberland, Rochester, and Roberts — that offered athletic scholarships. They are very persistent, chasing after me even after I registered with McKendree.”
Waimea High School bowling, and Kaua‘i Junior Blazing Bowlers coach Todd Ozaki was pleased with Toki’s choice, noting that McKendree University has one of the best collegiate bowling programs in the country. He is also thrilled about Toki going to college and bowling, and her commitment to bowling beyond high school is a continuation of a family legacy.
“I met Naomi when she came out for the Waimea High School bowling team in 2018,” Ozaki said. “Come to find out, she comes from a long line of bowlers in her family. Her grandfather, Howard Toki, bowls in several leagues at Kaua‘i Bowl and is one of the top senior bowlers. Her Uncle Bojay lives in Las Vegas and was a legend here on Kaua‘i when I was a junior bowler. I remember seeing his name on the back wall above Lanes 27 and 28 in huge red letters for shooting the first 300 game at Kaua‘i Bowl which was called Lihu‘e Lanes at the time.”
Toki said she started bowling when she was a junior at Waimea, and owes her moment to registering with McKendree to coaches Ozaki and Keiko Sagawa-Pananganan, a Waimea High School teacher and bowling coach.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without their efforts,” Toki said. “They did so much to get me here and I am really grateful for them. Bowling saved me, and made me want to bowl at the collegiate level. I definitely would not be here without my coaches.”
Ozaki said the road leading to McKendree is the story of trip to college bowling.
“When I met her, her textbook form stood out right away,” Ozaki said. “‘Okay. This girl can bowl,’ I thought. She eventually joined the youth bowling league on Sundays and has been one of the leaders in the program. She is very hard on herself, but is great with the many younger Blazing Bowler members that look up to her — parents are often thanking her.”
During her tenure as a Blazing Bowler, Toki qualified for the 2019 Junior Gold Bowling Championships, a 7-day event that drew more than 4,000 bowlers from around the world to Detroit, Michigan. Toki was booked for the July event.
“The day before we were to leave, Omi called in tears to tell us she couldn’t go,” Ozaki said. “She wanted to go, but due to a family emergency, she no longer had an adult chaperone to travel with. It would be best for her to stay with her family.”
Ozaki recalls the intense scrambling and discussions that led to Toki’s trip to, and participation in the Junior gold.
“Little did we know this trip to Detroit would have such an impact on Omi’s future,” Ozaki said. “An incredibly generous family — Steve Mitchell, Annie Meredith, and Callum Meredith (he was a member of the Kapa‘a High School boys bowling team during the fall KIF season) decided to put her up in their hotel room in Detroit. Multiple families from the Blazing Bowlers helped transport Omi to the many different bowling centers — Junior Golf uses eight different bowling centers, across Detroit, some taking more than an hour’s drive to access.”
Ozaki said that during Junior Gold, Toki also registered for the watch list where she was assigned a number and collegiate coaches, and professional representatives could watch her perform on the lanes.
During an appearance at Thunderbowl, a 120-lane center and the featured center for Junior Gold in Detroit, Ozaki was joined by Brian and Shannon O’Keefe, the bowling coaches for McKendree University that boasts one of the top bowling teams in the country.
Brian is one of more than 20 certified Gold Level Coaches in the world, and Shannon is currently ranked No. 1 in the Professional Women Bowlers Association.
“Nervous or not, Omi noticed the O’Keefes sitting and made me aware,” Ozaki said. “She performed well, rolling a 189 game in front one of her heroes. That drew comments from the O’Keefes on her form and the potential they saw in her.”
Toki said that trip she almost didn’t make changed her life.
“She always wished to pursue bowling at the next (collegiate) level, but never believed it was possible,” Ozaki said. “Following Junior Gold, Omi captained the KIF champion Menehune with Coach Keiko, worked to keep her grades up, and started applying to colleges with NCAA bowling teams.”
Toki will leave for McKendree University in mid-August with the goal of studying Business Administration and Entrepreneurship.
She also knows there is much to learn and accomplish if she hopes to make the McBear traveling team, but is up for the challenge and cannot wait for Kaua‘i Bowl to open, Ozaki said.
“I’m nervous and very scared,” Toki said. “But if anything, I know how to find my way.”
Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.