HPU Baseball on the cusp of first postseason appearance since 2010 with series win over Concordia

BY MICHAEL LASQUERO | HSRN
PUBLISHED APRIL 16, 2024

The tide is starting to turn for the Hawai’i Pacific baseball team.

The Sharks picked up a key series victory over Concordia University Irvine over the weekend to even their PacWest conference record at 14-14 with just four games left in league play before the postseason.

HPU dropped the first game against the Eagles, 4-3, before rattling off three decisive victories in a row to help move the Sharks into fourth place in the conference — a critical spot to be in as the top four teams will play in the PacWest postseason tournament, which uses a double-elimination format with no byes. 

The Sharks are trying for their first postseason appearance since 2010 and will have control of their own destiny with a road trip at Hawai’i Hilo this weekend and a crosstown matchup against Chaminade the following week.

“It was definitely a good weekend,” said HPU third-year coach Dane Fujinaka. “We needed to win that series, definitely a big series and I think it was really good to see different parts of our team click and be able to ride that momentum because historically we haven’t played good on the road. It seems like we’re getting the hang of it and starting to get some success on the road. Obviously going to Hilo we need to continue that and continue to play good baseball.”

The first win for HPU in the series came courtesy of the bat of sophomore outfielder Noah Hata, who hit a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the eighth in an 8-4 victory.

“Noah had a really good at bat and got a hold of one. That was the game right there. We definitely needed that,” said Fujinaka. “That was the turning point of our season, that hit because we were struggling to put together some runs.”

Hata’s game-winning blast also came after Concordia intentionally walked Skylar Agnew to get to him.

“I can’t believe they did that because statistically, Noah is as good as Agnew,” said Fujinaka. “It was a good matchup for him. He had a really good at bat, super clutch.”

For his efforts, Hata was named the PacWest Player of the Week.

“He’s the hardest worker on the field, plays hard all the time and just wants it,” Fujinaka said. “He’s a guy that everybody trusts because of the preparation that he does. He’s a great kid, a great teammate. Everybody loves him. I think everybody was super stoked when he pulled through there. He’s a guy that everybody wanted to see pull through and he deserved it.”

Game three was a dominant win in which HPU scored 14 runs on 20 hits in a 14-7 victory. The Sharks also got it done against Concordia’s Riley O’Sullivan, who was tabbed as the PacWest Preseason Pitcher of the Year. HPU got eight hits on Sullivan and chased him after 5 and 2/3 innings of work and scored 13 total runs in the final five innings of play.

“We knew he was their guy and we got to be ready to go,” said Fujinaka. “We actually hit him around pretty good, just couldn’t get that two-out knock. I just knew as long as we were good on the mound, we were going to get at him at some point so we did. Then finally we got a couple of big hits and then from there it took off. We built the momentum then we put them away. That was huge.”

Key contributors at the plate in the game three victory include Kota Suzuki, who batted 4-for-4 with three runs scored, TJ Smith with a team-high four RBIs and designated hitter Cooper Donlin with four hits in extended playing time.

While the bats came alive in game three, game No. 4 was the Shea Lake show.

The sophomore pitcher pitched a complete game in a 9-0 shutout performance to close out the series. Lake (4-2) tallied eight strikeouts in the win and was also selected as the PacWest Pitcher of the Week for his efforts. 

Officially Lake’s performance went down as a three-hitter, but Fujinaka thought those hits should have gone in the books as errors.

“That’s the best pitching performance we had all year, it should have been a no-hitter,” said Fujinaka. “It was three infield hits that they gave that were clear errors. That’s how the show goes when you’re the away team.”

The Sharks also backed Lake’s gem up with runs scored in five of seven innings played.

“We were kind of able to use our entire offense to score,” Fujinaka said. “Not just hitting, we ran, we bunted, we hit-and-run, all that type of stuff I think really attributed to the total runs scored.”

The three consecutive victories also came with two-time All-PacWest selection Nicholas Jio back in his usual leadoff spot. HPU was using power hitter Chase Taylor in the leadoff spot for a number of games previously before making the switch before game two.

Fujinaka said Jio has probably been the Sharks’ “hottest hitter the past couple of weeks.

“He’s back to his old self and in this past weekend, he’s back to the old All-Conference Jio.”

While in-state foes UH-Hilo (10-20) and Chaminade (8-20) are at the bottom of the conference standings, Fujinaka is not looking past the Sharks’ upcoming opponents.

“Chaminade is competitive, I don’t care what anybody says, they know how to play the game,” said Fujinaka. “(Coach) Chad (Konishi) is a really good coach. They’re coached well and they know how to play their game. It’s college baseball. You don’t show up and play your game, you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’re going to lose. By no means are they auto wins cause they’re not.

“Going to Hilo is a whole different ball game. That’s a tough place to win. I think I got one win there in three years. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet, we got to take care of business.”

Because conference leader Westmont (20-3-1) is not eligible for postseason play in its first year of NCAA membership, HPU just needs to finish among the top five teams in terms of winning percentage to reach the postseason. Point Loma has essentially clinched its spot with a 18-5-1 conference record, so the Sharks are trying to fend off the likes of Azusa Pacific (13-10), Concordia (11-13) and Fresno Pacific (10-14) for their spot.

“I’m excited,” said Fujinaka. “The guys are excited for the last few weeks of the season. The biggest thing for them that I’m going to tell them is to take care of one game at a time and build off of it. I don’t think we can look too far ahead about it right now. We just have to take care of what’s in front of us.”