HPU sweeps through weekend set with Chaminade, cruise into PacWest Tournament

HPU sweeps through weekend set with Chaminade, cruise into PacWest Tournament

HPU sweeps through weekend set with Chaminade, cruise into PacWest Tournament

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED APR 28, 2024

HONOLULU – Things went swimmingly for one team at the Les last weekend. 

Facing off with O’ahu-rival Chaminade (15-33) for a four-game series and the Swords’ senior celebration, the Hawai’i Pacific University Sharks needed four wins to surpass the 30-win mark – a threshold the program had not broken since the 2016 season. After a pair of wins on Saturday, Hawai’i Pacific had clinched a top-2 seed heading into the PacWest Tournament as the Sharks finally returned to postseason play for the first time since 2010. 

Still, Dane Fujinaka had his squad’s eyes on higher prizes with hopes at making the program a near shoe-in for a selection to the 2024 NCAA Tournament, regardless of a PacWest Championships title or not. A huge step towards making an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume: win 30-plus games. 

With victories of 7-6 and 9-3 over Chaminade on Sunday, the Sharks’ regular-season goal was reached as Fujinaka’s team pushed its record to 30-20 overall, going 17-15 during PacWest competition for the second-best finish among tournament-eligible programs. In a year that has been up-and-down to the max, HPU is back on the upswing at the perfect time. 

“We put it together for all four games [versus Chaminade],” said the Sharks’ head coach after his team’s 9-3 victory Sunday night. “I’m pleased with the way we’ve played, but it’s obviously great having [the momentum of a six-game win streak] going into the tournament that we’re going to play in. [There are] four really good teams where anybody can beat everybody, so we’ve got to be ready to go.” 

GAME 1: Hawai’i Pacific 7, Chaminade 6 

Xaiver Stoker got the start for the Silverswords as Shea Blanchard took the mound for the Sharks in Sunday’s first game. 

Stoker quickly became acquainted with a streaky HPU lineup as the Sharks pushed across a pair of runs in the 1st inning with a 2-out RBI ground-rule double from right fielder Noah Hata. The Swords scratched a run across in the bottom of the frame to cut the lead in half, 2-1. 

HPU worked quickly to reclaim the multi-run advantage as Haydon Huff led off the inning with a single, was pushed over to second on a sacrifice bunt and came around to score on a Nicholas Jio RBI single to left field. The Sharks extended their lead in the top of the 3rd as Hata and Huff scored on a base-hit up the middle by Elijah Igawa to make it 5-1 while Blanchard continued to spin a gem on the mound with three consecutive scoreless frames after his one-run opening inning. 

Chaminade began to get to Blanchard once again in the bottom of the 5th, putting the first two batters on with a walk and a well-struck single before Owen Schnaible came on in relief for the right-handed starter. The call to the bullpen didn’t help matters much as Schnaible hit the first batter he faced before a fielder’s choice, E-6 allowed a pair Swords to score and cut the HPU lead down in half after five innings of play, 5-3. 

CUH freshman Jackson Peper made it a whole new ballgame in the bottom of the 6th, drilling an RBI double to left field off of HPU’s Mac Leisher that allowed a pair of Silverswords to score to tie the game at 5-all after six innings. 

Again, Hawai’i Pacific calmly responded as shortstop TJ Smith led off the top of the 7th with a single before coming around to score the go-ahead run when a Chase Taylor single skipped by the Chaminade left fielder all the way to the fence, allowing Taylor to advance to third himself. He would come in to score moments later as Hata hit an RBI sacrifice fly to right field to give the Sharks a 7-5 lead. 

Chaminade would make one final push as freshman Joey DeCoeur blasted his first career homerun over the fence at Les Murakami Stadium to bring the Swords within a run in the 8th, but HPU closer Ryan Inouye slammed the door shut in the bottom of the 9th with his 13th save of the year, a new single-season program record for the Sharks. 

“Hats off to [Chaminade] and the coaching staff,” Fujinaka said of the Silverswords. “Chad [Konishi] has put together a really good team and a really good young core group. [I think] they’re going to be really competitive from here on out, they were this year even being their first year.” 

GAME 2: Hawai’i Pacific 9, Chaminade 3 

The night’s second contest started slower for the Sharks, being retired in order as Chaminade senior and Saint Louis alum JT Navyac struck out the side in his final appearance on a college mound. 

It would be the Silverswords striking first in the bottom of the 2nd as fellow Chaminade senior Haruki Kitazaki singled to center, moving Navyac to second base while scoring Ryan Ruch. Freshman Jaren Baris brought Navyac home a couple batters later with a single down the right field line, making it a 2-0 advantage for the Swords to open Senior Night. 

Hawai’i Pacific struck back in a big way in the top of the 3rd, tallying five runs while recording just one out take control of the game. Infielder Caleb Millikan batted twice in the inning, leading things off with a single before grounding out to shortstop for the final out. 

The lead ballooned to 9-2 in the 5th when the Sharks’ bats came alive again. Chase Taylor doubled home Skylar Agnew to re-start the scoring before coming around to score himself on a 2-out single from Frankie Peralez. After Peralez stole second, Millikan snuck a ball fair down the right field line for an RBI triple and scored HPU’s final run the very next batter as Jio delivered another RBI double. 

Shea Lake enjoyed a sparkling night on the bump in game two for the Sharks, spinning five strong innings with just four hits allowed, striking out three while only allowing a singular earned run and two runs total in the win. He gave way to Owen Schnaible, who gave up a run in just 0.1 innings pitched in the sixth as Chaminade’s Navyac had a run-scoring single poke through the middle of the infield. 

After Vicente Molina calmed things down for HPU in the bottom of the 6th to maintain a 9-3 lead, Jeremy Kahle locked it down to finish the Sharks’ 30th win of the year with a pair of strikeouts in the 7th to send Chaminade packing into the offseason. 

“It’s huge,” Fujinaka said of HPU clinching 30 wins on the year. “From Day 1 [this season], our goal was to win at least 30 games and we thought that would put us in a spot to make the tournament and have a chance at an at-large bid.” 

WHAT NEXT? 

Hawai’i Pacific now awaits the PacWest Championship tournament, which takes place this season at Azusa Pacific’s home field in California. The Sharks will face off against Concordia-Irvine in the opening round of the double-elimination, no-byes tournament. HPU fell in the first of four games against CUI back on April 12, dropping a one-run decision 4-3 before sweeping through the following three contests in Irvine, California with three wins by outscoring the Golden Eagles over those games, 31-11. 

“Offensively, [when] we put the ball in play, we play small ball, we run a lot of action,” Fujinaka said when asked about what a fully-clicking HPU team looks like. “[When we are] successful on the mound, we’re able to get ahead and throw our pitches … and on defense, we take care of the ball. I think when we’re doing those three things, it’s really hard to beat us.” 

CUI’s Jake Covey spun 7.2 innings of 2-run ball against the Sharks in that April 12 loss, striking out eight HPU batters while working around consistent traffic on the basepaths. According to Fujinaka, the Sharks are expecting to see Covey once again to open the tournament. For HPU, it’s a chance at redemption in the program’s first appearance in the two-year history of the conference tournament. 

The tournament’s top seed is three-time defending regular season PacWest champions Point Loma, who has spent a majority of the season in the national rankings. Tournament hosts Azusa Pacific round out the top four teams in the conference. 

With eyes on a potential postseason berth, Fujinaka and HPU have eyes on locking in a spot with the program’s first PacWest title in baseball since 2010. To do so, a gauntlet of talented teams awaits them. The Sharks went a combined 7-5 in the three respective series against the other tournament qualifiers, sweeping APU while being swept by PLNU. 

Chaminade competes, never retreats in first full season in over 40 years

Chaminade competes, never retreats in first full season in over 40 years

Chaminade competes, never retreats in first full season in 40 years

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED APR 29, 2024

HONOLULU – Following a weekend that saw rival HPU sweep them, the Chaminade Silverswords had smiles on their faces. 

On Senior Night, the team celebrated a pair of seniors that had a bit of a different experience through their final year of eligibility. No, they hadn’t helped them win the game that night, but the team relished the opportunity to be out on the field together playing baseball. 

The final record for the Silverswords is an uninspiring one at first glance, an expected casualty of a program in phase one of a total rebuild after more than four decades away from the diamond. Upon further inspection, it’s easy to see how Chad Konishi’s team has built a foundation for the future. 

“Really proud of [the team’s] efforts. I tell people that I don’t think our record is indicative of how hard we played,” the first-year skipper for the Swords said after Chaminade’s Senior Night game. “Success isn’t built on one-year wins and losses. I think the experience that the young kids got, the [Junior College] kids taking it to the next level, all that kind of stuff [is important].” 

Built up of 26 first-year college athletes, a various number of transfers and a few local boys returning to suit up for baseball in Hawai’i once again, the Swords scratched across 15 wins while providing plenty of scares to other teams – including the University of Hawai’i during a 2-0 loss on April 16 at Les Murakami Stadium where the Chaminade pitching staff only allowed four hits all night. While Konishi’s hope was to eclipse the 20-win threshold, struggles closing out close games crushed those chances as CUH fell 12 times by two runs or fewer with nine of those losses coming by a single run. 

Typically, “experience” for young players at each level includes a fair share of mistakes. This year’s edition of the Silverswords were no different as they tied with UH-Hilo for the most errors committed in the PacWest this season with 84 blunders while the youthful pitching staff allowed a league-high 286 earned runs across 48 contests as they worked on honing their craft. 

“Could we work smarter? Yeah, but I was really proud of their competitiveness. Some days we lacked execution, some days we didn’t,” Konishi reflected. 

The seeds for success are sprinkled all throughout the season for Chaminade, who tied for the least amount of total home runs allowed this season with just 27 long balls against the Swords’ staff. The offense of the Swords, while lacking power, was built upon patience, finishing the season with the 3rd-most walks drawn by any team in the conference. 

“We don’t have our own field, we practice at the Ala Wai and not one day did [the team] ever complain practicing there or whatever,” Konishi proudly said of his team. “They showed up early in the mornings for practice, they worked hard.” 

That hard work didn’t come accidentally. A sizable portion of the Chaminade roster felt overlooked or underrecruited, coming to put on the blue and white for an opportunity to prove themselves at the next level, either from JUCO or high school. With them, Konishi needed some senior leadership for his foundational team. He found exactly that when Kailua product and Cal State Fullerton transfer JT Navyac gave Konishi and staff a chance to help him close out his college career at home. The pitcher/infielder spent three seasons in California, appearing in 102 games before joining the Silverswords’ historic first group back on the field for his final year of eligibility. 

He gave eight games of pitching to the Swords while appearing in the field for 44 total contests, racking up 36 hits at the plate. Playing one final time at home inside the friendly confines of Les Murakami Stadium, Navyac twirled a 1-2-3 inning with three strikeouts in his final pitching appearance and recorded an RBI single in his final at-bat. 

Navyac said the highlight of the season for himself came during those final seven frames against HPU. 

“Being able to start, get three strikeouts and then my last at-bat having an RBI single is awesome,” the senior said. “Being able to play in front of my family and friends was awesome. Coach Chad [Konishi] gave me the opportunity and I thought ‘why not?’ and I had a great time. We improved a lot, had fun and as a first-year program I think we made a lot of steps forward. A lot of things to work on and understand but I think there’s a good future for Chaminade.” 

Konishi acknowledged it being important to bring the utility man home for the future of the program, even if it only meant one year of having Navyac on the roster. The longtime baseball coach was extremely thankful that the Saint Louis alum gave his program a chance over other local competitors HPU and UH-Hilo. The veteran leadership of Navyac allowed for continued growth of three high-school shortstops into a first year of college by showing them the right way to go about their business on and off the field. 

Chaminade’s other senior, Haruki Kitazaki, was an example of taking your chance and running with it after he worked his way into the lineup midseason and never let go of the spot. After originally being on the block to not travel with the team, Kitazaki changed his season at Biola with a 2-for-4 day at the plate and a run scored in the second game of a doubleheader, starting the final 12 games of the year after that performance. 

“His time came up and he was put into the lineup, and he started to have some success. He hadn’t come out of the lineup until we took him out in honor of his senior inning,” Konishi shined about Kitazaki. “[Navyac and Kitazaki] couldn’t be two better kids that played for us for one year … [we were] fortunate enough to have both of them.” 

While the two leaders will graduate and move on, Chaminade returns multiple intriguing pieces such as first-year catcher Joe DeCoeur, who smacked a solo homerun out of Les Murakami Stadium’s confines in the Swords’ season-ending double-header against Hawai’i Pacific for his first long ball of the year. Fellow first-year Evon Williams showed glimmers of potential at third base and at the plate with hits in five of his final eight games. On the mound, first-year right-hander Rhyn Chambers “emerged” as a standout with a 1.66 ERA, allowing just 11 hits to 26 strikeouts across 16 appearances for the Silverswords. 

“I think the future is bright,” Konishi said. “I know we’re not there … we’re close but yet we’re not close, you know? I think we’re on our way, but we have to make some strides.” 

The head skipper pointed to the weight room as a key area for the Swords to invest time in during the offseason as the team hit a conference-low 12 home runs in 48 games. With more than 20 high-school players seeing considerable time in the field, Chaminade’s core was made up of a more youthful collection than opponents. 

A full offseason program for strength and conditioning for his young players will go a long way, says Konishi. With added strength and stamina, an already talented group looks to increase production and ranking among PacWest participants. 

“As I said in the beginning of the fall, I think putting a team out on the field was an accomplishment in itself,” Konishi stated. “We’re hoping that guys return and that they enjoy their experience here in Hawai’i, at school and the with program. We’ll start to fill in the holes that we think we need to replace.”