Player of Year / Tajia Acierto, Kapolei

Finding Taja

The Hurricanes pitcher made
the difference for the state title

FINDING the right pitcher usually makes the difference between a good softball team and a great one.

That's why finding Tajia Acierto was so critical for Kapolei coach Tony Saffery.

Acierto did some finding, too. The sophomore learned how to be a pitcher who can rely on her defense instead of being just a hard thrower. As a result, the Hurricanes captured the state Division I championship this year.

"I knew I needed to throw strikes," said Acierto, the Star-Bulletin's state player of the year. "A strikeout is a plus, but I concentrated on throwing the right pitch at the right time that it's called for. That was my main focus. I tried to pitch my best and if opponents hit me, they hit me, but I had my defense right there behind me."

Saffery saw Acierto as a youngster pitching in community leagues, and he knew he had somebody special when he learned she would attend Kapolei two years ago.

"I knew way back then that when she got into high school, she would take command. I couldn't wait until she got here, because I knew she and her classmate, J Girl (catcher Jasmin Yoro), would form the battery and that we could build our defense around them."

Maybe Saffery knew Acierto could eventually dominate, but he didn't think it would be this soon, especially with so many other strong pitchers out there. But Acierto got the Hurricanes the coveted title, and that's something first-teamers Courtney Kessell of Kailua and Sarah Weisskopf of Punahou couldn't do.

"We knew we had a chance, but I never expected to take it -- especially with teams like Kamehameha and Kailua in there," Acierto said. "But after we won the OIA championship, we felt like there was no pressure and just took it slow and made sure we did everything with the right mechanics and the right way."

Acierto used five pitches to keep opponents guessing -- a curveball, screwball, riser, changeup and drop, but it was her passion that was most important.

"She cares about what she does," Saffery said. "She works super hard. If she's not bleeding, she feels like she's not working hard enough. And she puts her hours in during the offseason. One thing I always do when I judge an athlete: I find out how much they care."

And Acierto was a true find.

"FINDING NEMO" is a movie the Hurricanes talk about a lot, according to Acierto.

"We remember all the scenes and go through all the lines, even though it's already an old movie," she said. "We like the shark part, where the fish are used as shark food. And we have a player on the team -- Tanya Menino -- who reminds us of the Dory character in the movie. She's not dense, but she kind of acts like that."

Tajia's not dense, either, but schoolwork isn't her favorite thing.

"When I have school projects, I procrastinate and wait until the last minute to do it," she said. "But I always do it."

At least she has determined the problem.

"Yeah, I have problems just like everybody else, and when I need someone to talk to, I go to (teammate) Anita Manuma. We're close."

She's also close with J Girl and the other two Manuma sisters on the team -- Valana and Malama -- and Austi Paris.

Tajia, of course, was at the center of the rise to the state's top spot. "At practice, we were always laughing and there wasn't one time when people got mad and dramatic. We had fun because we knew we could do our jobs."

Like the fish movie, the Hurricanes' season was a fun-filled journey with a happy ending. And somehow, they found what they were looking for -- a championship.


Hurricanes, Warriors dominate
first and second teams

You can bet the Star-Bulletin All-State first and second teams will have some repeat selections next season.

That's because only 10 of the 26 overall choices are graduating this year.

State champion Kapolei and Interscholastic League of Honolulu winner Kamehameha lead the way with a combined 10 first-team picks.

Aside from player of the year Tajia Acierto, three other Hurricanes made the first team -- shortstop Valana Manuma, third baseman Austi Paris and outfielder Anita Manuma.

In addition, three Kapolei players were picked to the second team -- outfielder Amanda Shigetani, second baseman Chaz Ebelaroza and first baseman Malama Manuma.

Kapolei's Tony Saffery -- the Star-Bulletin's coach of the year -- said Shigetani's unselfishness helped unlock an early season problem.

"She's really a shortstop, but I asked her to play center field so we could put Valana at short," Saffery said. "She had the speed we needed in center, but she didn't want to do it at first, so I asked her what she would do if she was the coach. She thought about it and said, 'Yeah, Coach, I guess I would put me in center.' It worked out, because she did what was best for the team and she's certain to play shortstop in college."

Kamehameha lost in the semifinals of the state tournament to Kailua, but the Warriors were loaded with talent and six players were chosen to the first team -- catcher Kaulana Gould, first baseman Nicole Kalakau, second baseman Liane Horiuchi, outfielder Kaui Tom, designated hitter Kate Robinson and utility player Brandi Peiler.

Robinson and Peiler, two of the best pitchers and batters in the state, sacrificed time on the mound to help at other positions and make the team unit stronger.

Kailua's Courtney Kessell, who led the Surfriders to the state crown in 2003 and to a championship-game loss to Kapolei this year, joins Acierto and Punahou's Sarah Weisskopf as first-team pitchers. Weisskopf threw a perfect game, a no-hitter and two one-hitters and got the Buffanblu to the state semifinals, where they lost to the Hurricanes in extra innings.

Amazing as it sounds, Acierto, Kessell and Weisskopf will all be back next year.

Kessell was one of four Kailua players to make either the first or second teams. Surfriders outfielder Tanisha Milca rounds out the first team, while catcher Erin Guerrero and shortstop Rusty Ann Borges were second-team picks.

Two players from University -- the state's first Division II softball champion -- received second-team honors. Jessica Ghazali pitched the Junior 'Bows to the title, while teammate Mandy Yoshizu led the ILH in batting with a .511 average.

Punahou third baseman Gail Matsushima and outfielder Erica Miyabara, Castle pitcher Lia Pedrina, Leilehua pitcher Alexis San Nicolas, Mililani outfielder Ciera Senas and Pearl City utility player Krystal Plunkett round out the second team.

First team

Pos. Player Team Year
Pitcher Tajia Acierto Kapolei Sophomore
Pitcher Courtney Kessell Kailua Junior
Pitcher Sarah Weisskopf Punahou Junior
Catcher Kaulana Gould Kamehameha Senior
First base Nicole Kalakau Kamehameha Senior
Second base Liane Horiuchi Kamehameha Junior
Shortstop Valana Manuma Kapolei Senior
Third base Austi Paris Kapolei Junior
Outfield Tanisha Milca Kailua Junior
Outfield Kaui Tom Kamehameha Sophomore
Outfield Anita Manuma Kapolei Sophomore
DH Kate Robinson Kamehameha Senior
Utility Brandi Peiler Kamehameha Senior

Second team

Pos. Player Team Year
Pitcher Jessica Ghazali University Sophomore
Pitcher Alexis San Nicolas Leilehua Senior
Pitcher Lia Pedrina Castle Senior
Catcher Erin Guerrero Kailua Junior
First base Malama Manuma Kapolei Junior
Second base Chaz Ebalaroza Kapolei Senior
Shortstop Rusty Ann Borges Kailua Junior
Third base Gail Matsushima Punahou Junior
Outfield Ciera Senas Mililani Junior
Outfield Amanda Shigetani Kapolei Senior
Outfield Erica Miyabara Punahou Junior
DH Mandy Yoshizu University Senior
Utility Krystal Plunkett Pearl City Junior

Honorable mention

Aiea: Ashley Sato. Baldwin: Nicole Alconcel, Sanoe Kekahuna, Jenna Mailou. Castle: Cheynah Farley, Tianni Mattos. HBA/SA/SF: Carolyn Fisher. Honokaa: Deynna Pahio. Iolani: Sheryl Fukuda, Chelsey Keola, Tara Yanagihashi. Kahuku: Kamaile Hughes. Kailua: Shyenne Hussey, Chante Wallwork Mundon. Kamehameha: Noe Esperas, Sharee Fonoti, Emi Snow. Kapolei: Jasmin Yoro. Keaau: Kuuipo Nihipali. Lahainaluna: Kelci Fushikoshi, Audrey Chihara, Jessica Maielua, Tiffany Nava. Lanai: Jerrileen Fauate'a, Ashley Fernandez, Lucelyn Bolo. Leilehua: Pikake Nutter-Gaudet. Nanakuli: Victoria Mao. Mililani: Thiffany Anguay-Kalau, Samantha Bolosan, Dana Lee, Stacy Sakata, Charity Senas, Casey Sugihara. Pearl City: Kellie Nishikida. Punahou: Cristen Aona, Shanna Dacanay, Kelli Ishii, Kimberly Nagamine, Kaha Weir. Roosevelt: Kimberly Fuller. University: Richie Titcomb, Iwalani Yamaguchi. Waiakea: Elise DuPonte, Krystelle Garcia, Paige Kurosawa, Leigh Springer. Waianae: Tracy Kane. Waimea: Ashley Mier, Lynette Perreira.

Coach of the Year

Tony Saffery, Kapolei


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