Hawaii off to strong start at Little League World Series

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT. Pa. (AP) — A packed Lamade Stadium, a national TV audience and an opposing pitcher who tossed a no-hitter in a regional final.

That would trouble a lot of teams of 10- to 12-year-olds, but not Hawaii.

Kekoa Payanal drove the third pitch over the fence in left, and Hawaii was on its way once again.

Hawaii has won its first two games at the Little League World Series by a combined score of 23-1. That’s 11-1 over Northwest, and 12-0 over Metro — specifically Massapequa Coast from Long Island — on Friday. The club from Honolulu hasn’t even played a full game yet, having mercy-ruled each of its opponents after the fifth inning.

On Friday, Kekoa hit two of his team’s four home runs.

“I have this routine,″ Kekoa said. “Basically you take a deep breath and stare at your bat to focus. That’s what works for me.”

It’s not just hitting, too. Hawaii has dominated on defense as well, allowing only one hit, and remaining errorless in the field.

It’s more of the same for a Hawaii team that has been one of the best American Little League teams over the last several years. This Honolulu squad won the tournament in 2018, and the 2021 team placed third — having to stay in a COVID-19 bubble through regionals and the LLWS.

Keith Oda, the team’s interim manager while his brother, Gerald Oda, recovers from COVID-19, said the team works on hitting anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours each day.

“First at-bat we need to attack,” Oda said. “Don’t let them breathe, put them on their heels early.”

On the mound, Jaron Lancaster and Cohen Sakamoto combined to no-hit the team from Long Island. Lancaster, sporting a blonde Mohawk, struck out seven of the 11 batters he faced in three innings.

Both Lancaster and Cohen are eligible under Little League pitch limit rules to play Monday when Hawaii faces Texas.

The combined no-hitter was true to the team’s motto “We Me,” or “we is greater than me.”

“What we pound in the heads of these kids is that it’s not about you, it’s about the team,″ Oda said. “Whatever it takes for the team to do well. Even if you aren’t starting, be the best cheerleader to your fullest for the team.”

Esaiah Wong wasn’t in the starting lineup Friday night, but followed what he had been taught. Esaiah said he got so excited for Kekoa’s first-inning homer he almost fell over on his way out of the dugout. Wong eventually got to hit in the fifth, and he belted a three-run homer.

“I was so pumped when (Kekoa) hit that home run, and I was so ready to get in the game,″ he said. “And when I got called up, I just had to clutch it up and help the team in any way.”

It may be hard for Esaiah to wait through the weekend for another chance to play but Oda expects them to be ready.

“We tell them to attack every pitch and they work hard at it,” Oda said. “Their hard work shows up in the games.”

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Matthew Gelhard is a journalism student at Penn State.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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