by Kyle Koso
After many months of staying cooped up and coping with the feeling that life had grown too quiet, the time is proving ripe for softball teams to get busy again.
The Kupa’a 14u girls team, based on the island of Maui in Hawaii, will be turning the routine upside-down in every way this June when they make the big trip – 3,762 miles – to the USA mainland to play in the 15th annual TC OKC tournament, one of the core fastpitch events on the calendar for Triple Crown Sports. The event features a five-game guarantee and welcomes teams from ages 10u through 18u from more than 20 states.
Kupa’a is the Hawaiian word for loyalty, and the roster for the 14u team certainly has been devoted to the idea of playing in Oklahoma City, hustling at every turn despite COVID shutdowns to fundraise for the trip and work on their softball skills typically all on their own time. The squad will include nine players who are age 14 and two more who are 12; seven of the older girls have played on the same team since age 10.
“Our 14u girls are really excited to have this opportunity to attend a tournament in the Mainland. This is the first time almost all these girls will be going to the Mainland, ever,” said Sherylden Gaspar, 14u team mom and wife of head coach Simon Gaspar. “Our girls had not lost any interest in softball during the pandemic, and there’s lot of the excitement knowing that they’re attending a well-known tournament.”
Typically, the TC OKC tournament (June 4-7) is scheduled so teams can make their way to the Women’s College World Series, which runs concurrently with the event. The NCAA has yet to make a final determination if fans will be allowed in the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, but the Kupa’a program feels like the value of the trip is worth it either way.
“We had heard about Triple Crown OKC from our coach, Timmy Tanno. Coach Timmy had mentioned this tournament not only because of the exposure, but because of the experience of playing against other teams outside the state of Hawaii and of course, the WCWS,” Gaspar said. “It will be a great opportunity and have a ‘WOW’ factor to have our girls sit and watch the World Series in hopes that one day it will be their turn to step foot on that field … if it will be available for us to attend.”
The Kupa’a program dates back to 1998, when Maui High School head coach Bobby Medeiros started an alumni fastpitch league featuring prep graduates from Maui County. This evolved into Medeiros wanting to get younger players trained up and more prepared for their own time in high school, with ages 6-16 ultimately being served by the league. Hundreds of athletes have taken part in the spring/summer program, but no teams ever left Hawaii for a tournament.
The current 14u squad and their families had to be patient in working on their games as well as putting together the trip. Hawaii had multiple lockdowns and episodes of re-opening as the COVID-19 case counts varied; the Maui Girls Softball Association ran a private league that offered a short-season schedule so the current crop of freshmen could get precious playing time in preparation for the 2021 club and summer tournament season.
“Last November, Coach Simon, myself, and our assistant coaches had a meeting with our parents about TC OKC … how this opportunity would benefit our girls and how it is their time to see what’s out there,” said Gaspar. “We were honest about the case counts on how it fluctuates and the risks we would be taking in traveling. During our discussion, I specifically mentioned that even though the girls want to attend TC OKC, the final decision will be up to their parents due to health concerns and as always, finances.
“If and when parents said yes, I made the girls promise me that they will be working hard in raising funds to pay for their trip as we are not allowed to do any team fundraising because of the gathering rules Hawaii is enforcing. I gave our families a week to think about it and within three days, 11 out of 14 girls’ parents had responded back saying, ‘YES.’”
Once the trip gets closer, the Kupa’a team will investigate other activities, maybe getting in more games or doing some sightseeing, given how far they’ve traveled.
“We are really, really excited,” said 14u player Kelela Gaspar. “We finally get to play in a different place where we never played before, and we get to experience new opportunities to boost our self-esteem as a softball student-athlete.”