Weary yet proud, Hawaii team reflects on journey to Little League World Series

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It was an emotional scene as Honolulu’s Little League World Series champions returned home Monday.

Hundreds greeted them at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport with cheers, lei, and messages of love and congratulations.

The team beat South Korea 3-0 to capture the world title Sunday, with first baseman Mana Lau Kong hitting a home run in the first pitch.

“I knew that that pitcher (Yeong Hyeon Kim of South Korea) was going to be tough to hit, so I was thinking that do not let any fastballs go by and try go attack every fastball, and once he gave me that fastball first pitch, I just swung and it just went over,” he said. “I was thinking that we really needed that run, because we might not be able to get a run eventually.”

Kaolu Holt couldn’t be stopped with eight strikeouts on the day, including the 18th and final out that sent the entire state into a frenzy.

“I didn’t really notice (South Korea crowding the plate), but when I watched the game, I kind of saw it, but it didn’t faze me at all. I just kept throwing strikes. I knew my team had my back,” he said.

Their journey to victory was a long one. Through 12 games over the summer, the boys in blue captured state, regional, national, and world titles, becoming just the third team from Hawaii to accomplish that feat under the Little League banner.

For team manager Gerald Oda, it was all about inspiring the Aloha State.

“During the last day of the tournament, right before the championship game, there’s a sportsmanship award that goes. When it was announced that we won that award, I told the kids that this meant more than winning the world championship, because this showed everybody that we not only played the game the right way on the field, we did it the right way off the field,” he said. “I was very proud of the kids and it spoke volumes. This team, they stuck together. They respected each other, respected the opponents. We played hard, but yet we played with a lot of aloha and that, I couldn’t ask for more.”

The welcome ceremony came as a happy surprise to these weary players.

“This was unbelievable. We never thought this would happen when we came in,” said in-fielder Sean Yamaguchi. “It was awesome. Everybody there, they supported me. My team we knew we had to win it for the state of Hawaii so that’s what we did.”

“It’s just amazing. We knew the whole state of Hawaii had our back, and that kind of calmed me down, because I knew that I had to deliver for them and since they had my back, I had to give some aloha back to them,” said pitcher Kaolu Holt.

The players say some of their most memorable moments didn’t take place on the field, but off it, bonding with each other, and getting to know other teams and players from around the country and the world.

“We all hang out in grove. It’s awesome. In San Bernardino, we got really close with Idaho team so we always hang out with them, and we’re always close with the Japan team,” Yamaguchi said.

“Probably playing ping pong inside the rec room and talking to all the other people with Google translator to speak to them. It was fun,” said Holt.

“It was really cool, because not too many people get an opportunity like that to be able to play against all other people and make new friends around the world,” said Lau Kong.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says a parade will be held in the team’s honor, though details have yet to be confirmed. Despite the accolades, the players continue to practice one of Oda’s biggest lessons: humility.

“I’m prepared (to go back to school). I’m not going to be too cocky. If they tell me thank you, I’m always, always going to appreciate it,” Yamaguchi said.

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