The UH-Hilo baseball team starts practice Friday, looking to get back into the swing of things after a pandemic shutdown.
“Not everybody is back (in Hilo),” coach Kallen Miyataki said. “It’s kind of tough, but we’ll deal with it.”
The Vulcans are coming off a 4-8 season in 2020 after a breakthrough year in 2019. They finished 26-19 and in second place in the PacWest, the first winning record since 1992.
Miyataki had the Vulcans on the upswing and riding a wave of momentum. Then a series of unfortunate dominoes started falling. Pitching ace Dylan Spain took a redshirt year, and the pandemic shut down the season in March.
Since then, players had their summer ball plans canceled and rust grew on pitching arms and bats. The team is taking safety precaution measures, small groups of 10 or less, masks and 6 feet of social distancing.
“We’ll keep it light,” Miyataki said. “They haven’t been playing at all. It’s like they’re getting back to it. Hopefully, we can stay clean and get to a certain point, where we could start scrimmaging.
“We don’t have a schedule for next year. COVID-19 really controls everything. But the kids, the coaches, we’re ready to get going.”
It’s tough for an isolated school like UHH, which has to travel to play opponents or have foes visit the Big Island. The administration and conference will have to figure out quarantine protocols and state regulations on safety.
“It’s a reality check,” Miyataki said. “We’ve been stressing safety first. We’re focusing on academics, but safety is the No. 1 concern.”
Unlike basketball, which has Chaminade and Hawaii Pacific as Division II foes, baseball only has HPU and UH-Manoa.
It’s a bonus for the local players to compete against the Rainbow Warriors, even if it’s discounted as an exhibition by the Division I school.
“Right now, we’re looking at HPU, and we have Manoa tentatively scheduled to come here. But without a schedule, it’s hard to schedule anything. I don’t know if we’re allowed to go to the mainland. Following the PacWest rules might be tough.
“Nothing is set in stone. Fluid is what they call it. And that’s so true. If you set a schedule, it might change.”
The good news is the entire lineup is back. The pandemic gave everyone an extra year of eligibility.
Brandyn Lee-Lehano has made the most improvement. He’s 6 feet 5 and 235 pounds, and Miyataki noted he’s the hardest thrower at 93 to 94 mph.
“He really developed,” Miyataki said. “I’m proud how he developed.”
With Lee-Lehano and closer John Kea back for a repeat junior season, the bullpen will be an area of strength.
Kea had three saves in 2020, setting a school record with 22 saves for his career. He was named to the PacWest all-preseason team and lived up to his billing.
“We’re pretty much the same team,” Miyataki said. “Dylan Spain is ready to go. We’ll be really strong with our bullpen. We’ve got our top pitcher and our closer. Our bullpen will be intact.”
It’s a strange feeling to see players holding the same class standing. It’s an annual ritual: graduate players, recruit new ones and break them in
“The kids had the option to opt out,” Miyataki said. “They’ll have the same eligibility for another year. It puts a burden on the high school kids coming in. We’re heavily loaded on the top side. A guy like Casey Yamauchi who would have been a junior is a sophomore again. Kobie Russell is a sophomore. For the freshmen coming in, they have to be patient and wait. Those are our top players.
“It’s like that all over the place. It’s overflowing with players. I’ve had a lot of inquiries. We’re so loaded that we got 27 trying out for pitching.”
It didn’t help that the Major League Baseball draft was limited to five rounds. That made some Division I programs release players to infuse better, blue-chip talent.
In turn, Miyataki said he received interest from three pitchers capable of throwing over 90 mph. But loyalty counts for something. He didn’t release any of his players to take on someone better.
“We couldn’t take them,” he said. “We don’t have scholarships.”
Until then, the Vulcans will enjoy their practice and get ready for a season to start in January.
“We want to pick up some skills and basically get ready for January,” he said.