Pennsylvania State University
LONG WAY FROM HOME
The journey of Hawaii’s Little League World Series team in a pandemic year
By Andrew Destin
“We made everybody in Hawaii proud.”
Patrick Murray Jr. was all alone, and with his dad, whenever he trotted out to left field during the Little League World Series.
His father, also named Patrick, would perch himself behind the outfield fence so he could take videos and occasionally chat with his son. Those brief exchanges were all the communication they had, since LLWS teams were secluded from the rest of the world throughout the tournament due to COVID-19.
Every team at every level in sports, from the Los Angeles Dodgers down to the Honolulu Little League team, had to deal with the pandemic.
But imagine being 12 years old, without your mom, dad, brother or sister and nearly 5,000 miles away from home for about a month. Such was the reality for team Hawaii.
“The first few days, starting in regionals, it was more like summer camp for them, they were having fun,” manager Brandon Sardinha said. “But you could tell after a few days, they were missing their parents.”
Now imagine having the pressure of matching the 2018 LLWS champions. Just three years earlier, the very same Honolulu Little League won the LLWS.
River Ridge Little League (Louisiana) took the crown in 2019, and no tournament was played in 2020 due to the pandemic. If Hawaii’s team managed to win it all, it would be the quickest an American squad earned multiple championships since Long Beach secured back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993.
Playing and testing
Prior to traveling to the continental United States, Honolulu had to take care of business in its state tournament. The club defeated Central East Maui on July 20 in convincing fashion, 9-0, to earn a trip to Southern California and the West regionals.
Kim Soares, mother of outfielder Xane Soares, had never spent a day away from her son prior to the team’s postseason run. In preparation for the team’s journey to San Bernadino, July 26 was the last time she saw anyone outside her immediate family.
“That week and a half or two weeks that we were home, we couldn’t do anything,” Soares said. “We couldn’t even see family and we did a ton of COVID tests, just to be sure that (Xane) would be OK to play.”
Kalei Keanu, Ryan’s father, said the players and their families decided as a group to separate themselves from the community 10 days prior to their departure in hopes they would all produce negative COVID tests upon arrival in San Bernadino. The Honolulu team ultimately left the island of Oahu on Aug. 6 for a matchup with Washington Little League (Utah) two days later in California.
The team kicked off their roughly week-long stint in the Inland Empire with a 15-0 rout. Shortly after, though, they faced one of their stiffest tests in Summerlin South (Nevada).
Hawaii saw the six-run lead it had built up disappear entirely by the time the sixth inning rolled around. To keep his and his teammates’ LLWS dreams alive, Zack Bagoyo successfully sprinted for home on a wild pitch, allowing his squad to advance further in the tournament.
A pair of ensuing lopsided victories then gave Hawaii the West Region championship.
From there, the kids were off to Williamsport on a charter flight. The Hawaii team piled into a bus right after their 7-2 win over Southern California in the regional championship game, and it took them directly to a nearby airport. That was on Aug. 14.
Legacy to live up to
Patrick Murray’s older brother, Chandler, was a member of that 2018 Little League championship team. Chandler and his teammates ran roughshod through that tournament, going undefeated and outscoring their opponents 26-3 over a five-game stretch. Honolulu capped off its dominating run with a 3-0 shutout of Japan, a country that produced five world champions between 2010 and 2017.
Patrick leaned on his big brother for advice about how to best enjoy the tournament, but he simultaneously dealt with the stress of living up to Chandler’s success.
“I would be at practice sometimes and I’d wonder if we were as good as them,” Murray said.
The 2021 Honolulu team was up to the challenge in terms of talent on the roster, but the group that traveled to Central Pennsylvania was without its ace: Tyler Shindo.
An ambidextrous pitcher and switch hitter, Shindo is such a good, young ballplayer that he had previously committed to joining Team USA’s National Team Identification Series in North Carolina. He rattled off hits from either side of the plate in North Carolina and showed off skills that have wowed the youth baseball world.
But pitching two shutout innings against Southern California in the West Region championship was the last hurrah for Shindo, leaving his teammates without the greatest talent on their roster.
Fellow hurler Ryan Keanu understood bringing another title back home to the Aloha State would be even tougher without Shindo.
“It was hard, knowing that we had lost one of our best pitchers and even one of our best hitters,” Ryan said. “After two or three days, we kind of had to get over it and just play for him.”
Halfway around the world without the team’s best player and family time all but nonexistent, Sardinha’s group had to lock in if it wanted to match the 2018 champions.
“Our team was very competitive and tough, resilient,” Sardinha said. “There was pressure on ourselves to try and represent (Hawaii) as well as that team did.”
Once they were on site at the LLWS complex in South Williamsport, Hawaii’s players scattered into different dormitories. It was in those rooms where Ryan first felt alone.
Players and their families were seriously restricted in their face-to-face encounters. Ryan got to see his dad a handful of times throughout the tournament, but they were in outdoor and socially distanced settings.
After games, teams climbed into vans behind Lamade and Volunteer stadiums. Families stood around waving as their sons were whisked off to the team dorms.
“I had like seven or maybe eight chances to meet with my dad, but they were only for five minutes,” Ryan said. “I wish I could have met with him a bit more.”
Other players weren’t even as lucky as Ryan and instead were relegated to Zoom meetings with their parents. Sardinha set aside time and helped set up nightly calls for the players with their folks.
Even though international teams were not present due to the COVID-19 safety guidelines that were in place, Hawaii’s players were able to distract themselves by interacting with other American teams. They’d play wiffle ball in the dormitory courtyards during their down time, embracing the sheer fun of baseball that can often be lost at such levels of high stakes competition.
“They knew when it came time for baseball, they had to focus and they did that really well,” Sardinha said. “When we weren’t playing baseball, they let loose and they had a great time.”
Players like Patrick Murray weren’t surprised by how well the team gelled. Not only had they coexisted as one unit for roughly a month, but the players were far from strangers.
“We were playing loose cause we’ve been playing baseball together for a few years,” he said. “It’s all the teams from the same Little League. We join together, it’s pretty special.”
There was another reason members of the team were so comfortable with one another: vaccines. Hawaiian players who were 12-years-old were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the LLWS.
According to Sardinha, everyone on the team, except for two 11-year-olds who did not qualify for a vaccine at the time, got one.
Still, the fear of a false positive test or contracting a breakout case were enough to keep players like Ryan from treating a COVID-19 vaccine as a pass from practicing safety protocols.
”I knew that I could get COVID-19, even though I was vaccinated,” he said. “One of our players who wasn’t vaccinated got COVID (before the LLWS), so we just had to take extra precautions. I knew that I had less of a chance of getting COVID, but still knew that I could get it.”
A title to chase
Five days after winning the West Region, Hawaii faced Connecticut in its opening game on what was designated as the Hank Aaron side of the bracket. Honolulu faced little resistance as it triumphed 9-1, setting the stage for a second-round encounter with Nebraska.
Though that game ended in an 11-3 Hawaii win, a late-game flurry of hits and runs was needed to come out on top in extra innings. After allowing Nebraska to tie the contest at 3 in the bottom of the sixth, Ryan hit an inside-the-park home run as part of an eight-run inning for the HNL Boys.
Then, it was his turn to take the hill against Michigan.
“I never had any pressure on me until I started against Michigan,” he said. “We knew if we won that, we’d at least get top-four. So, we just had to win that game and we’d be top-four in the country.”
On the biggest stage of his baseball career with the potential for garnering another world championship for Honolulu Little League weighing down on his right arm, Ryan excelled. He threw a one-hitter, aided in part by some stellar defense.
The diminutive Zack Bagoyo, hero of the regionals, made two leaping snags at second base and Kaikea Patoc-Young charged into the center field wall to steal a home run from Michigan’s Cameron Thorning. Though Chauncey Adkins broke up Ryan’s perfect game bid with two outs in the fifth on a single to right, Hawaii prevailed and topped Michigan 2-0 to advance to the LLWS semifinals.
A familiar foe loomed there for the Hawaiians.
After defeating Michigan once, Honolulu would face the team representing the Great Lakes again, after it beat Texas 15-6 in the Hank Aaron losers bracket.
But the cool and swagger-filled squad that graced ESPN’s broadcasts for its first game was nowhere to be found come first pitch on semifinal Saturday, Aug. 28. Thorning made sure no Hawaii outfielder had any chance of robbing him this time around, homering on a thundering shot down the right field line in the top of the first to give Michigan a 2-0 lead.
Patoc-Young smoked an RBI single to right field in the bottom of the third to plate Chasen Uyetake, but that was as much as Hawaii could muster. Michigan won 2-1, ending Hawaii’s hopes of a LLWS title and keeping its own very much alive.
While Sardinha’s squad still had a third-place game to play the next day against North Dakota, coming up just short of the title game stung hard. Hawaii was two runs away from earning a shot at not only a LLWS championship, but that second title for Honolulu Little League in four years.
Both accomplishments would have served as partial justifications for their families’ numerous sacrifices amid a global pandemic. Instead, the Hawaiian boys emerged from their semifinal game empty-handed.
“I was devastated that we couldn’t get first or second in the country,” Ryan said.
It was a somber mood throughout the clubhouse, as players reflected on how close they had come.
“I was pretty sad because we had just worked so hard to get there,” Patrick said.
But soon, it was time to refocus for the third-place game, which would double as Honolulu’s last contest at the LLWS complex.
A celebration slide
In a Sunday morning consolation game that began at 10 a.m., many teams would have mailed it in. But not Hawaii.
Honolulu went out in fine form against tournament sensation Gavin Weir and the rest of the North Dakota team, defeating them 5-0 for a third-place finish paced by the Payanal brothers, Kekoa and Pele, combining for four RBIs. Though it wasn’t another Honolulu LLWS championship, Ryan was satisfied with the result.
“Top three in the country is still a great accomplishment,” he said.
Finishing on the podium wasn’t the most important event of the day for Honolulu’s players, though.
With the tournament’s conclusion, the Hawaiian team briefly gathered itself and the players stumbled into a bus, just like they did when they first departed for Williamsport.
The vehicle snaked up the hill and dropped off players in front of the dormitory entrance as parents and other loved ones watched eagerly. Then, after the players gathered their belongings, it was time for the moment everybody had been waiting for: a bunch of family reunions.
Parents hugged their sons, some of whom broke into tears upon embracing their moms and dads.
“That was an awesome feeling,” Sardinha said. “You could see the joy on their faces, just being able to interact that closely again with their loved ones. You could tell how much (the players) missed them.”
Parents like Patrick Murray Sr., who works as an orthopedic surgeon, took three weeks off of work to be there for his child. For Kalei Keanu, who mostly texted his son, Ryan, instead of calling him during that stretch, having a chance to look right into his son’s face was a moving moment.
“It was very emotional,” Keanu said. “I’m pretty sure all the parents felt that way since we hadn’t seen them, hadn’t been able to hug them and hold them and tell them good night.”
When the hugging stopped and the families and players realized there was still loads of free time until their flights back to Hawaii the next morning, there was one thing left to do. Players grabbed sheets of cardboard that seemed to appear out of thin air and quickly rushed toward the top of the famous hill behind the outfield wall of Lamade Stadium.
With the ground soaked from rain the night before, Honolulu parents grimaced as their sons changed the shade of their crisp white pants to hues of brown and green while sliding down the hill. Mothers like Kim Soares wouldn’t have traded this experience, and this moment in particular, for the world.
And when it was all said and done, Saturday’s disappointment faded into the joys Sunday brought.
“I just wanted to get to the Little League World Series, because that’s something that not every single 12-year-old kid could even do,” Keanu said. “Just making it there made my dream come true.
“We made everybody in Hawaii proud.”
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