For the Punahou softballers, the most important concept is team unity. Sometimes, support is more important than talent.

Punahou’s hot corner

Chinen has a crystal-clear message
about the importance of team

At Punahou, lessons in softball and life are offered on a street corner.

Well, sort of.

At the bottom of Punahou's campus, the corner of Palm and Chamberlain drives converge to create the boundary for the school's softball field. There, Kristl Chinen and her coaching staff cover everything from the intricacies of defending first-and-third situations to the importance of character and accountability in softball and in life.

Led by their powerful positive thinker Chinen, the Buffanblu have turned a team of 16 players -- including 11 seniors -- into a rarity in athletics. A true and unified team. A unit.

With a talented core of athletes, Punahou has followed up two straight state tournament appearances to stand atop the Interscholastic League of Honolulu standings at 9-0 this year, having won both of their regular-season showdowns with perennial power Kamehameha.

The Buffs hope to make a run at the program's first ILH title in 31 years, and maybe even Punahou's first state softball crown.

Punahou players Jeri Shimazu, Kaha Weir and Gail Matsushima and the rest of the team loosen up by playing dodgeball.

IN THE PITCHER'S circle stands Sarah Weisskopf. The senior right-hander has been an All-State pick twice, and she's the reigning ILH Player of the Year, but she does not stand alone.

At shortstop is multi-sport talent Shanna-Lei Dacanay, a gamer by all definitions who will have her choice between college softball and basketball come next fall.

Third baseman Gail Matsushima, an All-State performer, has already committed to play for the University of Hawaii.

Then there are senior catcher and co-captain Kaha Weir, and slugging outfielder Adrienne Tanaka. Each came up with game-breaking hits against the Warriors this year.

On a team heavy with skill, it's amazing that their biggest stars have the smallest egos.

"It's easy to play on a team like this," said Cristen Aona, the only starting underclassman. "We don't have to worry about who is getting credit or who's getting all the playing time. Look at Ish (Kelli Ishii). She hurt her knee and can't play for a while, but she never stops cheering for us and supporting us."

With the coaching staff they have, excellence on the field might be expected. Chinen lettered in softball at the University of Oregon, helping the Ducks to a College World Series appearance in 1989. Chinen also earned a distinguished honor as a Wilma Rudolph Award winner in 1991, as one of just 10 athletes across the country, male or female, to be noticed for their academic achievement through adversity.

Assistant coach Nani Sua-Vegas was a star outfielder at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1980s. Fellow assistant Kalai Castro was an outfielder for the Rainbow Wahine when they played in the NCAA Tournament in 1999, earning All-American Scholar-Athlete distinction. Former Punahou standout performer Sarah Yamashiro and Carrie Hironaka, a former softball and basketball star at Tufts University, round out a formidable staff.

When Chinen speaks at softball practices and games, 'I' and 'me' are words on an endangered list. Instead, 'us,' 'we,' 'team' and 'unit' flow freely.

CHINEN AND STAFF have devised a number of ways to encourage the team concept over the six or so years she has run the Punahou program. Chinen and her staff push open communication, honesty and accountability by using methods such as the team's Circle of Appreciation.

The Puns gather around and seat themselves in a circle and are required to say something positive about the person to their right. Sometimes there's humor, sometimes there are tears and hugs, but there's always honesty.

Ego is rarely part of the equation. "I think anyone on this team can do the job, given the chance," senior center fielder Erica Miyabara said. "Each one of us brings a special attribute to the team and I'll gladly give up my bat for any one of them."

In their win over Kamehameha two weeks ago, Miyabara did just that, when she was pinch hit for by Kim Nagamine. With the bases loaded and no outs, Nagamine stepped and and drilled the first pitch for an RBI single to break a scoreless tie in the fifth inning.

"When I went in to pinch hit for Eri, I heard her cheering for me as soon as I stepped into the batter's box," Nagamine said. "She wasn't disappointed that she lost one of her at-bats, she was just happy for me. It was very unselfish, and it shows exactly how great of a person she is."

Then there are Chinen's talks about being women of character.

"Coach Kristl always talks about the Standards of Excellence (work ethic, mental toughness, ownership and responsibility, team and enthusiasm)," Ishii said. "That's something that will always remain with us. I realize that softball's just a part of the experience here."

There are achievement stickers on the players' batting helmets. Individuals are awarded the stickers for team wins and selfless acts, such as sacrifice bunts, squeezes, hitting behind runners and executing hit-and-runs.

"Softball is such a team sport," Dacanay said. "You need all of the players, not just the nine on the field, but even the players on the bench. No one player can win a game."

THE MOST UNUSUAL method used by Chinen is not something that involves gloves or bats or windsprints or even softball, for that matter.

When the going gets rough and the Buffanblu need to loosen up before a big game, they strap on their game faces and play a game of dodgeball.

Yep, dodgeball.

With reckless abandon and uncanny aggression, the Punahou softball team battles with 12-inch rubber balls more commonly associated with grade school playgrounds. Players and coaches alike compete for dodgeball supremacy, and they take no prisoners.

"Sometimes we play outfield versus infield, and there is a little rivalry going on there," Matsushima said. "Sometimes we get a little carried away, but we're all so close, that in the end, we're having fun."

Coaches are fair game, too. "It can get pretty intense," Chinen laughed. "We all get our aggression out in dodgeball, and it keeps us loose before games. But just because we're coaches doesn't mean they don't come after us. I might be lying there on the ground, and six or seven more balls will come flying at me."

WHILE IT IS a luxury to have a number of standouts and college prospects on the roster, the Buffanblu would be best suited to have the same number printed on each of their 16 jerseys, or perhaps wear no numbers at all.

"This team is truly special to me, and I don't use that word very often," Chinen said. "What makes them different is that they are all individually great people, as well as being good players. They all wanna be part of this team, and they accept that they can achieve so much more as a team than they could as individuals.

"They genuinely love being around each other and they trust each other and are very honest with each other. Our intent is always to make better people, because 10 years from now, not too many people will remember who won at states. But we'll all remember each other."

Dacanay agrees. "I don't think I'll ever be able to play on a team like this again," she said. "We've seen each other play and grow since the eighth grade, and we're like a family. I think it is going to be hard to find a team where everyone cares for each other like we do."

Whether or not the Buffanblu win their first league title since 1974, or a state championship, or another game for that matter, they have already achieved more than they should be able to comprehend at this stage in their lives.

They understand all that Chinen tries to pass on, from the importance of honesty and trust to the Standards of Excellence, and they have internalized it all.

They've learned a lifetime of lessons.

All on the corner of Palm and Chamberlain drives.

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