Waipio kids have a tough act to follow


POSTED: Thursday, July 23, 2009

Coach Ross Yamaguchi and his Waipio Little League all-stars feel the pressure already.

They're trying to live up to their predecessors, the boys of summer a year ago who went all the way to the Little League World Series Championship in South Williamsport, Pa., under coach Timo Donahue.

It won't be easy. Not a single player on this year's 13-man roster played for Waipio's World Series team. Still, opponents see “;Waipio”; on their jerseys and can't help but think of last year's glorious run and all the national exposure it brought.

Waipio, the recently crowned District 7 winner, began defense of its state tournament title yesterday by hanging on for a 5-3 victory over Kailua at the Aiea Recreation Center Annex.

“;That was really close,”; Yamaguchi said. “;It's pressure. Definitely. We've got a good group of kids, though. They've been together for three years.”;

Waipio pitcher Kaleb Vutnoski played a huge role yesterday, with 13 strikeouts. He also hit what proved to be the game-winning sacrifice fly to break a 3-3 tie in the fifth.

Despite the high strikeout count, Vutnoski hit some bumps as Kailua's Lia Tom, Ryan Kaleiopu Jr. and Christopher Jaeckel came through with RBI hits in the third to tie it at 3. A concerned Yamaguchi visited the mound, where Vutnoski convinced the coach he could continue to get the job done.

Kailua gave it a go in the top of the sixth (last) inning. Two hit batsmen and a groundout put runners on second and third with two outs, but Waipio reliever Shiloh Baniaga got Kaleb Gilmore to ground out to short to end the threat and earn the save.

“;I didn't get all of the ball,”; Gilmore, the losing pitcher with eight strikeouts, said about the game-ending at-bat. “;Still, I think our team did fine. We were nervous going against the World Series champs, even though it wasn't the same team (as last year).”;

The nerves were there for Waipio, too.

“;I was a little worried (in the last inning),”; said Lene Manuma, who crushed a two-run homer in the second to give Waipio a 3-0 lead. “;But I knew we could do it. We had confidence.”;

Waipio moves on for an 11 a.m. game today against host Aiea. The tourney winner goes to San Bernardino, Calif., for the West regional and a chance for a ticket to South Williamsport.

“;Our hitting is good and our pitching is good,”; Vutnoski said. “;I think we've got what it takes to make it all the way.”;

Kailua plays an elimination game against Hilo today at 2. Hilo lost to Maui 6-5 yesterday.

“;Our goal was to beat 'em, not to lose,”; Kailua coach Jerry Bush said. “;Hopefully, we'll face them again. He's (Vutnoski) one of the better pitchers we've seen in the state. He can play ball.”;

Tom, the Kailua catcher, wasn't caught up in the Waipio mystique.

“;It (the World Series) didn't make a difference. They're just kids like us,”; she said.