SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Baseball looks like it comes easily to Hawaii’s Aukai Kea.
Case in point, Honolulu’s first game of the Little League World Series, when Kea slugged a walk-off home run after tossing 6 1/3 shutout innings.
But even he isn’t afraid to admit it — playing on national television and meeting major league players can be quite daunting.
“This whole tournament, this whole journey has been really nerve-wracking because our faces are all over the world and you never know who’s watching,” 12-year-old Kea said.
“You don’t want to mess up in front of them,” said his teammate, Ka’Olu Holt. “You want them to like you.”
The pressure will be amplified Wednesday night as Hawaii and a team from New York’s Staten Island are set to play in the marquee matchup of the tournament thus far. The winner will head to the championship game in the United States bracket.
The loser could still make that U.S. title game — a semifinal for the whole LLWS — but will have a harder road.
While both teams have reached the same destination, and possess the same goal going forward, they’ve taken different approaches when it comes to managing the pressure that Kea and Holt described.
Hawaii has embraced the nerves that come with representing their league for the first time in South Williamsport, playing in front of crowds that include tens of thousands of people, and signing autographs for fans who have ranged from little kids to Alex Rodriguez.
“We keep telling the kids to enjoy this,” Honolulu manager Gerald Oda said at a news conference. “I mean, a group of 14 kids from Honolulu, Hawaii, playing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania? This doesn’t happen too often. We really want the kids to enjoy it, soak it all in, but at the same time, show a lot of appreciation.”
New York, meanwhile, has taken a more business-like approach to block out any potential distractions.
“I’ll always ask (the players), ‘What does it mean?’ and they’ll all say, ‘Absolutely nothing. We’re here to play baseball.’ They know why we’re here,” New York manager Joe Calabrese said.
For many teams, simply reaching South Williamsport is the goal. Not New York.
“We’re not just happy to be here,” said Calabrese, who has been coaching teams in Mid-Island Little League for over 20 years. “We’re looking to win the Little League World Series.”
Hawaii, the West region representatives, opened the tournament with a 2-0 win over a talented Georgia team in the longest game in Little League World Series history, and took down Michigan 8-3 two days later.
New York has been equally impressive on the mound, defeating Iowa 5-2 and Texas 2-1. However, it will have to do it without the arm of Gregory Bruno, who has pitched eight of the team’s 12 innings so far and must rest by Little League pitch-count rules.
Calabrese, whose son Joe Calabrese Jr. also made it to Williamsport in 2006, is confident that his deep roster has what it takes to prevail.
“We’re scrappy, we battle, and our kids are focused,” Calabrese said. “They’re going to scrape and claw for it. They work extremely hard and they have that same type of (New York) mentality.”
The two teams from opposite sides of the country are the only two undefeated American clubs remaining. But neither team has faced a test quite like the the one it will Wednesday.
“It’s been a dream. I’ve always wanted to play in Williamsport,” said Holt, who is slated to start on the mound for Hawaii. “To dream of winning it would be awesome.”
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