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Hawaii Elite claims Kernels crown

September 21, 2021 | Jeff Dahn

2021-Hawaii-Champ

They traveled thousands of miles across five time zones just to be here, so if anybody doubted for one minute that the Hawaii Elite 2G were going to be content to fly back home out of Eastern Iowa empty-handed, those folks were sadly mistaken.

And if that meant going extra innings to take down the four-time PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship defending champion Cangelosi Sparks Black, well then so be it.

What was a marvelous pitchers’ dual from start-to-finish came down to the Hawaii Elite 2G playing both long ball and small ball in the seventh and eighth innings as they rallied for a 3-2 victory over the Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black in the championship game played Monday afternoon at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium.

For the many who have been in position to witness quite a few of these WWBA Kernels Championship title games over the 19-year history of the event, this was an instant classic brought to them in equal parts from a tournament newcomer and a successful tournament veteran seeking its fifth straight crown.

While battling to the end, the Elite 2G were also incredibly opportunistic when push came to shove. Michael Hanano led off the bottom of the eighth with a walk and one out later Jonah Velasco singled. The Sparks opted to issue an intentional walk to Elijah Ickes to load the bases and then, amidst all the drama, Beau Sylvester received a base on balls that resulted in, yes, a walk-off walk.

“If I wasn’t here I don’t think it would do it justice just to see what unfolded the last four days,” Hawaii Elite head coach Brandon Toro said postgame. “Obviously, I know this team can play…But to come together as one team like this and get the job done against top-level competition, especially in the championship game against the four-time defending champion Sparks, which has obviously got Division I players up and down that lineup.

“I don’t have to say that they have grit or that they know how to come back because they just basically did it,” he added. “It’s just fun to watch and I’m enjoying the ride as much as they are out there doing it.”

The top-seeded Hawaii Elite 2G finished their ride through an event that awards a paid entry fee invitation to next month’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., to the champion, with a 6-0-0 mark. The record doesn’t tell the whole story of how dominant they were right up until the championship game; the No. 3 Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black bowed out at 5-1-0.

The game was a snappy thing of beauty through the first six innings thanks to the efforts of a couple of pitchers who really made things work when they were out there, which was the majority of the time.

The Sparks 2022 Black went with imposing PG All-American Noah Schultz to start the game, and he didn’t disappoint. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound left-handed Vanderbilt commit (ranked No. 9 nationally) mixed in an occasional slider to go with a fastball that sat 90-93 mph to confound the Hawaiians; he was perfect until Keoni Painter singled with two out in the third. Schultz wound up pitching five four-hit, seven-strikeout innings and allowed just one unearned run before being sat down.

The Hawaii Elite actually let an excellent opportunity to get to Schultz go by the wayside in the bottom of the fourth when Beau Sylvester and Aiva Arquette hit back-to-back, one-out singles to right field to put runners on first and third. Schultz got a strikeout and a fly-out to end the threat.

The Hawaii Elite countered with Parker Grant, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound 2022 righty and a top-500 Cal State Northridge commit who was absolutely spot-on during his start, never seeming to flinch. He threw seven three-hit, seven-strikeout innings and, on that effort alone, was named the MV-Pitcher at game’s end.

“My coaches have been telling me since the first game here that they were going to hold me out until bracket-play,” Grant said postgame. “This was all for the team and  we just wanted to punch that ticket (to Jupiter) and we were going to do whatever it takes.”

The Sparks got the scoring starting in the top of the fourth when Tommy Atkinson smacked a leadoff double to right field and then moved over to third on a fielders’ choice groundout. He eventually scored on a sac fly off the bat of Colin Barczi, who enjoyed a very fine tournament in his own right.

The Elite 2G knotted things at 1 in the bottom of the fifth. Noah Hata was hit by a pitch to lead things off and moved to second when Grant bunted softly back toward Schultz for a perfectly executed sacrifice. Evan Elarionoff then drilled a one-out, line-drive double into left field that chased Hata home.

The Sparks got back on top in the seventh when Barczi received a two-out walk, Victor Izquierdo was intentionally walked and Jayden Comia delivered a two-out RBI double; they were three outs away from victory.

But it wasn’t to be. With one out, Xander Sielken stepped in and drilled a two-strike fastball for a solo home run that tied things back up at 2 and sent the game into extras. At that point, if it wasn’t already, the game became a WWBA Kernels Championship instant classic.

“From the beginning of the tournament we saw the Reds Scout Team and then we saw this team (Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black) that had won four years in a row,” Grant said, speaking about a couple of pre-tournament favorites. “We wanted to break that streak and make it a Hawaii Elite streak soon.”

The Elite’s Sielken, an uncommitted and unranked 2022 corner infielder, and Kodey Shojinaga, an uncommitted high follow 2022 catcher/infielder, shared the MV-Player award. Sielken went 8-for-16 (.500) with two doubles, two home runs, 13 RBI and five runs scored; Shojinaga was 7-for-15 (.467) with a double, triple, home run, seven RBI and eight runs and, per reports, excelled defensively.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not afraid to put any of them out there,” Toro said. “These boys can swing it and it takes a Noah Schultz or that type of level (pitcher) to kind of neutralize them a little bit…Hitting is contagious – all coaches say it – and basically that’s what happened this weekend. Right from the get-go there were maybe only a handful of innings where we didn’t score a run…

“On this team you know that 1 through 10 you’ve got 10 dudes. If you don’t get the job done somebody’s going to pick you up and that makes it a lot easier.”

The Hawaii Elite’s performance here leading into the championship game was one of pure dominance seldom seen at a Jupiter-qualifying tournament like the WWBA Kernels.

They never played a complete, seven inning game, winning all five of their games by run-rule. The Hawaiians out-scored their two pool-play opponents by a combined 31-0 to earn the playoffs’ No. 1 seed, then topped three playoff foes by a combined 28-1, including an 8-0 win over No. 5 Elite Baseball Training-Johnson in the semifinals Monday morning.

The Sparks 2022 Black were nearly as impressive, at least from a pitching standpoint. They earned the No. 3 seed after winning a pair of a pool-play games by a combined 7-0 and outscored their three playoff opponents 17-1, including a 6-1 win over the No. 7 Northstar Varsity Crawford in the semis.

Both of these teams will have entrants in the blockbuster PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter next month and, quite frankly, owe a lot of their national acclaim to what they’ve accomplished at the Kernels Foundation Championship through the years. The Cangelosi Sparks Black run of four straight championships is as good as it gets and now Hawaii Elite is getting its foot in the door.

“Truthfully with Hawaii Elite, we are in our infancy and Cedar Rapids and this Kernels Foundation Perfect Game tournament is part of legacy and part of our beginning,” Toro said. “I owe a lot to Perfect Game and to Mike (Bonwell) and Kaimana (Souza-Paaluhi) that helped us along the way on this journey; obviously it’s not over.

“But for us as a newer travel ball club to have the success that we had this summer and then couple it over here in Iowa…that part is really special.”

Jeff Dahn