There were no tears yesterday as friends, relatives and fans of the Waipio Little League All-Stars gave a hero’s welcome home to the national champs who fell short of a world championship.
"We were tearing when they lost (the World Series)," said Kelsea Hernandez, 11, who begged her grandmother to take her to Honolulu Airport to see five friends on the team, including Keolu Ramos, her best friend since fifth grade.
But Hernandez, along with 200 others, cheered the hometown heroes and their coaches as they walked through the doors of the baggage claim while the Royal Hawaiian Band played the themes from "Rocky" and "Hawaii Five-0."
The Waipio team overcame a first-round loss in the series, winning every game thereafter, beating Texas in the U.S. championship, 10-0. But they were defeated by Japan, 4-1, in the World Series.
Player Brysen Yoshii said he felt embarrassed when he saw his teary-eyed photo plastered on the front page of the Star-Advertiser after losing to Japan. But upon his arrival in Honolulu, he said, "I feel happy ’cause Hawaii’s supporting us even though we came in second."
The boys high-fived their fans, autographed baseballs and received hugs and lei along the roped-off "red carpet" with front-page photos from the Star-Advertiser posted along the path.
"It feels good to represent Hawaii and … just make it this far in the World Series and just have fun," said Ezra Heleski, who pitched the winning game to take the U.S. championship.
As for the welcome, "It’s better than I expected," he said. "I was here when in 2008 (Waipio) won it. I was here just like this at the airport. Now I get to be on the other side, walking through it, with them cheering me on and with them cheering us on."
For Tyler Kushima the best thing about his World Series experience was "Hawaii supporting us."
"I knew there’d be a lot of people, but not this much," he said.
Fan Thomas Miyashiro, 79, of Kaimuki, who came out to see the young champs, said, "They’re the greatest. Every game they came from behind."
His wife, Setsuko, who was ready to snap photos of the youngsters, said, "We’re not related but we so enjoy, so we came. They have very good teamwork."
Wearing his team cap and glove, Blaze Baraquio, 7, waited to get his ball autographed. He said he got sweaty palms watching Waipio, including his cousin Cody Maltezo, play. "It makes me feel nervous," he said, but he’s got plans of becoming a baseball star.
The country’s winningest Little League coach, Brian Yoshii, exemplified what he preached to his team, namely being "humble." He brushed off TV announcers’ praises of his calm, laid-back manner, in which he coached the boys, and admonishing them to be humble when they celebrated their national win.
Instead, Yoshii said it was all about the team members. "They didn’t want to go home. They’re fighters. They got big hearts. It’s all them. They didn’t want to give up."
Yoshii was "excellent in getting the kids ready, and the kids listened," said Kiha Akau, third-base coach and father to second baseman Kaho’ea Akau and 2008 champ Iolana. "They bought into our system and it worked."
He said the coaching staff stuck together as a team and had a game plan and a daily practice routine at 10 a.m.
He said his son, 4 feet 11 inches tall with his shoes on, has "the heart of a lion," knows the game well and shares with his brother an intensity and passion for the game, just as he does.
Maltezo, who pitched against Japan in the final, said he pitched only once in the districts. "It felt kind of good because I could finally really pitch and show what I can do," he said, adding that he’ll try to continue playing baseball and see what happens.
Player Kaimana Bartolome said Japan’s pitcher, who had an unusual slow-motion delivery, made it tough to hit. "We didn’t know when to load, so sometimes we would be off."
But he enjoyed "the experience of getting to travel" and meeting players from around the country and world, including the Japanese, who were limited in their English to "yes, no, thank you and you’re welcome," Bartolome said.
A beaming Shiloh Baniaga, who enjoyed a home run against New Jersey, said he’ll remember everything about his World Series experience.
His advice to aspiring Little Leaguers: "Never give up."