HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
Coach Souza groomed a handful of youngsters with the state championship in mind
MOMENTS after the Baldwin Bears completed a sweet 16-0 season and captured their first state softball Division I title since 2001, coach Ryan Souza reached over and clutched his trophy.
The trophy was husky 8-month-old Ronin, buttoned down and cuddly on a chilly night at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.
Across the way, Ronin's grandpa, Rudy Souza, wasn't thinking much about the startling surge to the top by the third-seeded Bears. Rudy, who started the softball program at Baldwin in the 1970s, kept asking for the trophy, as well.
"Where's Ronin? Where's my grandson," he asked any and all, wandering back and forth across the dugout and the on-deck area.
After all these years, decades of building a dynasty, producing talent for small colleges and NCAA Division I champions alike, the Souzas were in no rush to grasp the bold koa championship trophy.
That work of art was in the hands of catcher Sanoe Kekahuna. Smiling and effervescent in the midst of postgame celebration, once the TV cameras and news reporters were away, the other Sanoe emerged.
Holding the trophy closely, her powerful throwing arm wrapped around it, two long-lost friends finally reunited. She cried alone, staring out over the dugout at her field of dreams. It didn't matter if anyone saw the tears gush down her face. The taste for a championship catcher, one heading to Cal on a full ride? Bitter.
Outside the dugout, Baldwin's ace wasn't so comfortable with the extremes of emotion in her heart. Nicole Alconcel had just pitched another gem, a shutout of top-seeded Mililani. In three games, she pitched 21 innings, fanned 23 and walked just eight. She gave up just one run. At the plate, she delivered a two-run homer in the semifinals against St. Francis, then the decisive two-run homer against Mililani.
She should have been enjoying the moment fully. But as with Kekahuna, the unexpected happened. After the explosion of joy came the sudden emptiness. The confusion. The unstoppable sadness.
What happens when you are the best at what you do, and your dreams come true? It came so quickly, but perhaps it's a matter of perspective.
Maybe it's a matter of experience, for off to the other side of the on-deck area, Ryan and Rudy Souza held tight to their little guy. Ronin Souza, nestled in burly, gentle arms, had no clue of the triumphant world he has entered.
RUDY SOUZA GRINS quite often. Walking pneumonia? Take a shot at the doctor's office, fly to Honolulu and keep on keepin' on. Triple-heart bypass? Hand the reins to Ryan.
It was Rudy's passion for the game that transformed Ryan. So, after taking over and guiding Baldwin to a state crown in '01, Ryan made it his ambition to bring another title to Baldwin. It would be tough. Talent like Kaleo Eldredge (Cal) and Ashlyn Russell was not common.
Rudy made it a little easier. He saw the potential in two Little Leaguers. He inquired with some parents, and soon Kekahuna and Alconcel, better known as "Dengue" in her inner circle, were managers for the Bears. Raking the infield. Setting up batting stations, six of them. The list of chores was endless, and they kept up every day. Kekahuna charted the pitches, a ploy completely created by design.
By the time Kekahuna, Alconcel and another diamond in the rough, outfielder Dayne Carvalho, were varsity players, the Bears were still dominating the Maui Interscholastic League. It didn't matter that they were young. Year-round play with clubs like the Pacific Pride made a big difference.
Ryan Souza asked many things of his players, but none, Alconcel and Kekahuna said, remain more important than five basic priorities: 1. God; 2. Family and friends; 3. School; 4. Softball; and 5. Everything else. A coach can set the bar, but no one could have foreseen what was yet to come for the Baldwin ohana.
It was midway through last season when Ryan's wife, Liza Ann, developed complications while carrying triplets. Less than five months into her pregnancy, their hopes and dreams for three babies were crushed. Rudy Souza broke the news to the team, and the team went into silence as their coach mourned.
"I didn't know how to react or what to say," Alconcel said.
Kekahuna remembers the quiet practices, a different world without their fun-loving, hard-driving coach. "We wanted to make a difference in Coach Ryan's life," she said.
"He came back to the field," Alconcel said, "when he was ready. I knew he wouldn't quit. He's a fighter."
Ryan and Liza Ann spent days and nights together.
"When you're in that state of mind, you're not even on speaking terms. You just try to deal with the pain," he said.
She went to Oahu to stay with her family, the Goeas ohana. Before she went, Liza Ann gave Ryan her blessing to go to Japan for a long-planned trip.
"I'd always wanted to go there," said Ryan, a bonsai aficionado who has always embraced his Japanese roots.
It was at Kumano, a place of spiritual healing, where he regained his focus.
"I felt like I was back home," he said.
Notions of walking away from softball, from his players, dissipated.
"Every day at practice, I tell each student about commitment, so how can I tell them this if I quit in rocky times," he said. "I can't look them in the eyes and tell 'em."
He also remembered a promise he made to those seventh graders in '01. "When we won the state title, I felt like I fulfilled every goal, but Dengue, Bongo (Carvalho) and Sanoe asked me to stay," Souza said.
They stuck together. With Rudy back from heart surgery, and with a dedicated coaching staff, they plugged away, day after day under a blistering Wailuku sun.
BY THE MORNING AFTER the Bears captured their latest state title, there were plenty of smiles. Alconcel, on her way to Hawaii-Hilo this fall, had one of the greatest state-tourney performances in Hawaii history. Kekahuna showed her elite form, while steady outfielders like June-Ann Lusk and Carvalho gave Baldwin a near-flawless defensive performance.
"What pulled me through is that these kids weren't ready yet," Ryan said. "They needed me. They didn't need to say anything."
In the early morning, he was still holding his trophy. Ronin Souza is an early riser, all the more time to be with dad and grandpa.
"In life, the good Lord's gonna give you first and second chances. Now, we have that blessing. By right, I should have lost my dad years ago.
"What you do with a second chance is what defines your life. I ask the team, 'Will you make the right decisions?' I try to be real with them.
"The Lord gave me a second chance with Ronin," he said, and with that, the Souzas' legacy at Baldwin has reached its final chapter.