The sun was setting at Lew Hays Pony Field Thursday evening as Hilo, Hawaii’s players sat on the metal bleachers looking at the field where their dreams could become a reality. Spirits were high despite most of the players and coaches having family preparing for a different kind of challenge.
A 4.5 magnitude earthquake struck Hawaii Thursday morning and the first of two hurricanes was expected to hit the islands last night. Hilo manager Stacey Jarneski held his cell phone in his hands as he recited the exact time that Hurricane Iselle is expected to strike the island.
The players and coaches are keeping a watchful eye on their homeland, which they have not seen since leaving July 28 for a qualifying tournament in Whittier, Calif.
It will be the first time Hawaii is hit directly by a hurricane in 22 years. The storm is expected to bring heavy rain, winds gusting up to 85 mph and flooding.
“We’re focused on playing the games,” Jarneski said. “The families have assured everyone that things back home are OK. We’ve come a long way and we’re like one big family.”
Players expressed their concerns, but have their focus directed at the The Pony League World Series begins today and Hilo’s first game is Saturday at 11:30 a.m. against Chesterfield County, Va.
Hilo second baseman Trayden Tamiya, who is the team’s lone returnee from last season’s squad that reached the Pony League World Series, said that he can’t worry about his family in Hawaii when the 10-team tournament begins today.
“I wish I was there to be with them,” Tamiya said. “You just have to stay focused on what you’re doing right now. It’s a dream come true to be here. I never thought I’d see this field again.”
Hilo grabbed the attention of international competition last year when pitcher Edgar Barclay threw a no-hitter and struck out 20 batters, but the team lost 3-1 when two runs scored on wild pitches and one crossed the plate after a passed ball.
Jarneski’s son, Joey, is Hilo’s top pitcher. While both of his parents will be in Washington for the tournament, Joey is “excited” to represent his home state as it endures three natural disasters in one week.
“It’s a big deal. It’s great being able to represent Hawaii like this,” Joey Jarneski said. “I can’t wait to step on that field.”
Pitching behind Jarkenski in the rotation is Reese Mondina, whose parents and two brothers are preparing for the storms in Hilo. When asked about the impact of the storm, Mondina brushed off the concerns as his eyes remained focused on the precisely mowed outfield grass.
“You can’t worry about that,” Mondina said. “I haven’t talked to my family yet, but I will in a few days. I’m just worrying about playing for this team and finishing what we started.”
Hilo defeated Paderborn, Germany, 10-0, in the first round of last year’s World Series before dropping games to Chesterfield County and Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico. Manager Stacey Jarneski was not coaching last year’s team but has quickly grown into the job after experience at the Mustang level.
Hilo was on the brink of elimination after losing 9-0 to Long Beach, Calif., in the West Zone tournament, but defeated Long Beach, 3-1, in a rematch the next day.
“This is my last year coaching. I think I’ve aged 10 years over the past few months,” Jarneski said. “My hair never used to have this gray in it.”
The players and coaches have family and friends bracing for the biggest storm Hawaii has seen in more than two decades, but the West Zone champions reflect nothing but optimism. The kids signed a PLWS T-shirt for memories and showed off the souvenirs they bought at the gift shop.
If that does not take their minds off the weather in Hawaii, about 5,000 miles away, playing in one of the largest and oldest youth baseball tournaments in the country might help ease the tension.
“It’s great being here. The teams we’ve played so far are tough and this won’t be any different,” Joey Jarneski said. “It’s a great field. We don’t have fields like this back in Hawaii.”