* One regular-season game
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kapolei's Kaili Smith chased down a fly ball yesterday in a game against Pearl City
Smith settles with softball
Kapolei's center fielder made a successful transition from youth baseball
Growing up on the Ewa side of Oahu, Kaili Smith was more Torii Hunter than Laura Berg. More Barry Bonds than Stacey Nuveman, and a whole lot more Johan Santana than Cat Osterman.
Unlike most budding softball stars, Smith grew up playing the other sport on a diamond -- baseball.
"I played baseball with the boys from when I was 6 'til I was 14," said Smith, now a senior at Kapolei. "After I was born here we had to move to Okinawa for my dad's job. We were there for five years and when we moved back my mom decided to put us in a sport, and my dad thought baseball would be a good idea."
For the first eight years of her athletic career, Smith played baseball in the Ewa-Makakilo youth baseball league and played it well. With her signature breaking ball and her smooth left-handed hitting stroke, Smith starred on the mound and at first base, earning annual selection to league all-star teams.
"As Kaili got older, we decided that she would continue to play with the boys as long as she could compete," said Kalani Smith, a civil engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "You just don't see a lot of girls still playing in the Pony and Bronco divisions, but she did well. She had some natural ability, but her work ethic made the difference. She was always willing to work. We went to the park a lot and whether it was taking a couple buckets of ground balls, or hitting in the batting cage, she always wanted to be the best."
When Smith entered Kapolei as a freshman, she was introduced to softball. The transition was nearly seamless for Smith, who quickly established herself as one of the state's top hitters, helping the Hurricanes to an OIA championship and a state tournament runner-up finish. Smith was voted to the Star-Bulletin All-State first team.
"When she first came out as a freshman we already knew she would do big things for us," Kapolei coach Tony Saffery said. "She has great instincts, she can hit, run and she has quite an arm. She pitched overhand in baseball for years and I think that really helped develop her arm. A lot of the credit for her talent goes to her dad. He's been her coach ever since she started with baseball."
Her sophomore season consisted of more of the same, as Smith again proved herself as one of the top talents in the state, repeating as a first-team All-State pick.
Last year, Smith elevated her game to yet another level to hit .554, with 12 doubles and three triples for a .943 slugging percentage. The speedster also reaffirmed her status as one of the best defensive center fielders in Hawaii. She was named All-State for the third straight season.
"I really take a lot of pride in my defense," Smith said. "I know I can hit OK, but when I make a big play in the outfield, or throw someone out, I feel like I've done a lot for my team."
During the summer, Smith made her third trip with her Hawaii Pearls travel team -- coached by Saffery -- to Aurora, Colo., for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Tournament. She helped the Pearls to a 17th-place finish out of 250 teams in the under-18 division.
"The day before the tournament begins they have a clinic -- like a combine -- that the players go through with all the college coaches watching," Kalani Smith said. "She went through it and did very well. Two of Mississippi State's assistants were there and they went up to Tony right away and told him they were interested."
By the time she returned home, Smith was a prized recruit, also entertaining overtures from UCLA, Stanford, California and Fresno State among others. After recruiting trips to Fresno and Mississippi State, Smith and her family decided on the school that was the farthest away.
"It's funny, but I felt right at home on my visit to Mississippi State," Kaili Smith said. "They treated me like I was back in Hawaii."
Her father agreed.
"The people she met there, the coaching staff, the faculty, their strength coaches, were great," the father said. "They showed her that southern hospitality which is like the aloha spirit."
In Starkville, Smith will join a Bulldogs program ranked 18th in the country. She will play for NFCA Hall of Fame coach Jay Miller, who is nearing his 900th career victory. Also a coach with USA Softball junior national team, Miller has already offered Smith the opportunity to audition for the international squad next year.
"Coach Miller is a great coach, like coach Saffery," Smith said. "I look forward to playing for him. But playing for the (national) team is my long-term goal. Coach Miller is involved with the national program and that is very attractive to me."
Smith hit .667 with seven doubles, six homers, 16 RBIs and a .770 on-base average in nonleague games this year as Kapolei prepared for the OIA season. With her college commitment secured, she is better than ever and focused on leading Kapolei to the ultimate prize.
"Coach Saffery really helped me with my transition from baseball to softball," Smith said. "He taught me the game and gave me confidence that I could compete on the national level. He took me from someone who had success here, and helped get me exposure on the mainland. I really hope we win states so when I leave he has something good from me."
Profile: Kaili Smith
When Kapolei senior center fielder Kaili Smith was a freshman on the Hurricanes softball team, she was new to the sport, having played eight years of youth baseball.
Now, just a few games into her fourth season on the club, Smith is geared up to try to bring Kapolei a second state title. The last time the Hurricanes were state champions was one year before Smith arrived.
She leads with her bat and her glove and with her speed covering ground in center. State title or not, she'll be off to play for Mississippi State next season.