Image credit: Kalai Rosario (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
LONG BEACH, Calif. — When Kalai Rosario defeated Blaze Jordan in the finals of the 2019 Area Code Games home run derby, it confirmed to the wider baseball world what scouts in the West have said for years.
The 2020 draft class in Hawaii is a special one.
Six players from Hawaii are participating in this year’s Area Code Games, a record for the state according to event organizers. Rosario, shortstop Walter “Maui” Ahuna III and righthanders Kelena Sauer and Jacob-Thomas Navyac all made the Brewers team that selects the top players from Southern California and Hawaii. Shortstop Kalae Harrison and first baseman Safea Mauai are on the Yankees team otherwise made up of players primarily from the Northeast, largely because their talent proved worthy of roster spots regardless of their place of origin.
Together, the six headline what is being considered the best high school draft class to come out of Hawaii in recent memory.
“It’s the best overall group as far as quantity and quality,” one area scout said. “It’s not just representation this year. Every one of these six guys here has a chance to get drafted.”
Rosario, a physical, righthanded-hitting outfielder from Waiakea High in Hilo, Hawaii has been an early standout. He hit the most home runs of any player in the first and second rounds of the home run derby (four and seven, respectively) and then beat Jordan, 10-9, in the finals. His home runs included a shot that traveled 440 feet, according to TrackMan, the longest of the derby.
In the games themselves, Rosario has been one of the top offensive performers in a loaded Brewers lineup, going 3-for-5 with two walks, two runs scored and two RBIs through the first three days of the event.
“It just shows what Hawaii got, and we got a lot of good players,” said Rosario, a California Baptist commit. “It’s just nice to come out here and compete with the best, because that’s what we want to do.”
Rosario hasn’t been alone in impressing. Ahuna has earned raves for his actions and athleticism at shortstop. Sauer entered in place of injured starter Hunter Barnhart in Tuesday’s game and pitched 3.2 scoreless innings with four strikeouts while touching 92 mph.
“Back home the competition is pretty good,” Sauer said. “To see all of us come here and represent Hawaii and do pretty well, all of us, it’s pretty fun to watch.”
The ascension of the group is the culmination of a steady stream of prep talent to come out of Hawaii this decade.
The previous record for most Hawaii players at the Area Code Games was five, set in 2013. That group included Kodi Medeiros, who would go on to be the No. 12 overall pick in the draft the following year, current Marlins righthander Jordan Yamamoto and future Oregon State catcher and Nationals prospect K.J. Harrison.
The Brewers made Hilo’s Micah Bello the 73rd overall pick in 2018, and the Rays drafted Honolulu’s Shane Sasaki No. 99 overall in 2019. It marked the first time in draft history a Hawaiian high schooler was drafted in the top-100 picks in consecutive years.
Scouts largely credit the talent rise to the strong coaching infrastructure that has taken root on the islands. Kenny Harrison, the father of K.J and Kalae Harrison, and Timo Donahue, the head coach of the 2008 Little League World Series champions and father of Cubs prospect Christian Donahue and 2020 Oregon State commit Jordan Donahue, have become renowned coaches on Oahu.
“I think once you have those guys like Kolten (Wong) and Jordan (Yamamoto), you have that feeling of you want to be right there with them,” Rosario said. “What Kaha wants us to do, he wants us to be the best so the younger generations can look up to us and say, ‘I want to be like him, I want to go to MLB.’”
Said another area scout: “You already know every one of those Big Island kids can hit. They can all hit. It’s because of Kaha Wong. It’s because of what he teaches. It’s because of Kolten Wong. It’s because of Kean Wong. It’s because of Micah Bello. These guys are all part of the school of Kaha. Big Island presence, that’s a no-brainer. That’s one person behind all that, and that’s Kaha Wong.”
The Hawaii group has taken care to support each other during the Area Code Games. After a long day at the field on Tuesday, followed by an 8 a.m. Wednesday morning game, Hawaiian players from the Brewers returned to the field, rather than rest, to cheer on the Hawaiian players on the Yankees.
It’s a bond all the Hawaiian players share, knowing they have a chance to be a signature draft class for the state and that the success of the group will be as meaningful as any individual success.
Together, they are doing their part to make the Hawaii prep class of 2020 the best the state has had in some time.
“There’s some pride you gotta take,” Rosario said. “We just do our thing and come out here and compete.”