Aukai Kea’s charmed baseball story had its latest entry on Wednesday, as the Kapolei native signed his National Letter of Intent with Vanderbilt University, long regarded as one of the nation’s top baseball programs.
“I’m so thankful. Vanderbilt was my dream school,” Kea told KHON2.com. “It’s just awesome that I got the opportunity for this to happen.
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“Vanderbilt was my dream school since I was young. They always come out to Hawaii, so that never hurts. When I went on my visit to Vanderbilt, I just fell in love with everything there. I fell in love with the school, coaches. The coaching staff is just awesome, so that’s really what drove me to make that decision.”
Kea first gained notoriety on the diamond as the ace pitcher for Honolulu Little League, the 2018 Little League World Series champions. Although he split time between multiple positions as a youth, catcher was where he decided his future in baseball resided. It’s where he caught the eye of Vanderbilt and is also considered a legitimate 2024 MLB Draft prospect.
“Growing up, I used to catch and I used to pitch. As I got older, moving into high school, I learned that pitchers don’t hit,” Kea says. “I really enjoy hitting.”
Kea was born and raised in Kapolei, where he attended Kamehameha and won a state title with the Warriors in May to cap his junior season. At the end of the summer, Kea and his advisor were informed of an opportunity to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, the world’s most foremost boarding school centered around athletics.
IMG Academy, which was purchased for $1.25 billion in June, boasts over 600 acres of land and cutting edge athletic facilities that rival any level of competition. IMG’s varsity team went 25-0 in 2023, winning a MaxPreps national championship.
Kea moved to Florida by himself at the end of the summer ahead of his senior year at IMG. Perhaps the hardest part of the move was telling his teammates at Kamehameha he wouldn’t be around for the team’s attempt to repeat as state champion.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, especially my close friends,” Kea said. “They were happy for me that I got this opportunity, but a part of me wanted to stay with them and try to do it again this year. It was difficult.”
Despite the distance away from home, Kea says he calls his parents two to three times a week. His days at IMG are both rigorous and regimented.
“This place is very hard to beat. Our schedules are always set out for us, planned out ahead. We got school in the morning, and then we have a lift or speed work, and then we have our practices,” Kea said. “The facilities here are unbeatable, especially for a high school. How I look at it is, if you put in the work, you’re gonna get a lot out of it. So, I think it’s really preparing me for that next level.”
Five years after delivering Hawaii a Little League World Series title, Kea says he still gets recognized.
“Guys (at IMG) still ask me about it, like, ‘You’re that Little League kid?’ It brings back a lot of those memories. It was such a great time,” Kea said.
Although he signed his letter of intent with Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Kea will most likely have a choice to make next summer during the MLB Draft, with the possibility of bypassing school altogether in order to begin his professional career.
“Honestly, right now, I’m not really thinking about it,” Kea said. “I’m just making sure that every day, I go out there, give my best, work my butt off. Whatever comes to me in the future is what happens.”
Wednesday was just another chapter of Kea’s promising baseball career. Wherever it takes him in the future, he knows he won’t forget his origins.
“Hawaii will always be my home no matter what happens, no matter where life takes me,” Kea said. “I’ll always go home and call that place my home.”