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Vision comes true for Cal A’s travel softball program, expands to Hawai’i with two new teams

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

 

The adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ runs true with Wendell Au, Brian Iseri and the Cal A’s travel softball program. The successful organization in Southern California, which began in 1993 as an international team by Kathy Miller, is now making a name for itself in Hawai’i.

It all began roughly six years ago when Cal A’s president Marian “Speedy” Mendoza, who is also the head coach at Fullerton College, and Iseri talked about creating an organization that was about the girls and especially with the Christian Athletes Association. They wanted to do it the right way; create an organization that wanted to build young women, not just about softball.

However, Iseri said initially it wasn’t in his game plan to expand in Hawai’i. He says he was challenged by a non-softball friend. Seven years ago, he took a team to the islands and met a group of ‘really good coaches’ whom he became friends with. His friend mentioned to Iseri that he’s doing all this stuff in California but that he was also from Hawai’i and asked him, ‘what are you going to do for the Hawai’i girls’?

Iseri, the vice president of the Cal A’s, then began to have a few girls from Hawai’i play for the Cal A’s to get exposure. Then, the program began to grow, and he began to have multiple girls from the different islands play for the Cal A’s. There came a time where Iseri was getting more and more requests from the Hawai’i girls and he couldn’t fulfil all the request. In addition, he noticed the girls from the 50thstate had a slower time adapting to softball from the mainland.

He figured out that the Hawaiian girls were going to do the best when playing with each other because of the culture.

That’s where Au, Al Higuchi, Randy Langsi and others come into the picture. Iseri knew Au from years ago when he heard that Au was going to have a team in Hawai’i. Au’s older daughter played on a team in Southern California and the two coaches touched basis back then as well as when Iseri bought his Cal A’s team to Hawai’i, Au lined up a scrimmage one day with Iseri’s team and said the two teams had a ‘mutual respect for each other’.

Last year, Au ventured into the travel softball scene and played in the Triple Crown Sports Zoom Into June showcase tournament, held every summer in Hemet. He said Iseri took the time to look at the girls Au had and their development.

“As far as the players and athletes-wise and all like that, they have it,” Au said of the travel players on the islands. “But it’s just a matter of the right venues, the right circuit to give them the same recruitment type of timeframe; to give them the same platform as the 48 states have. That’s kind of how it connected [with Iseri].”

Au, who began his coaching on the recreational scene, has been coaching softball for 16 years. After rec ball, he moved on to travel and had a team called Pookela. After running that team for a while, he coached high school while staying with his travel team.

He was going to step away from travel softball because he had just got a head coaching position at Leilehua High out of Wahiawa, winning a Division 1 state championship.

There are less than 75 high school softball teams in Hawai’i and of that, fewer than 40 are on the island of Oahu, Au says the biggest softball tournaments in the state are the high school championships, not travel ball and adds that high school softball is big in Hawai’i.

So, the wheels were being put in motion to form a pair of Cal A’s teams in Hawai’i, a 14-Under and 16-Under team. Iseri was able to bring on board Higuchi and Langsi, who also had won high school state titles. You could say the new Cal A’s teams were getting the best of the best as far as Hawai’i coaches.

“That’s the biggest question I get asked, especially back home, because these guys are on t.v.,” Iseri said. “We had a parent the other night who came from another 12-under team that was playing up here and they wanted to find out what we were doing and how we were doing it and what the Cal A’s were all about.

“These coaches are here for a reason,” he later continued. “Not everybody can do this because these guys basically have their own programs. Al Higuchi has his own program. Wendell has his own program. They kind of took a step away from it to do something like this because they saw the vision. Their whole thing is they’re trying to change the betterment of softball, not just for themselves, but for the state of Hawai’i.”

“The biggest part that we all have in common is we’re still willing to learn,” Au said. “It’s not like we sit on our accomplishments and not continue.”

Iseri said he had the Hawai’i coaches train here for the past two summers to see what it takes to run a very successful program. And as Au admitted to, most Hawai’i travel ball players play on mainland teams as guests.

“But with that comes a different type of pressure,” Au said. “Brian kind of told me his vision. [He said] let’s try to make Hawai’i teams and see if we can get a whole team up to California so we can get over that little hump.

“Evidently, his vision and our coordination got improved right,” he continued. “They came right in, two or three days later, and we were playing in a tournament.”

At first, people weren’t so open-minded about the two new teams being formed, according to Au. And that’s after a pair of tryouts were held last September in which nearly 70 girls came out.

“Even if the numbers were there, it’s just still a vision, Au said. “In fact, it’s just still a vision. Until this trip finishes up in other six weeks, it’s still out there. We don’t know what the results are going to be.”

The two new teams are in the middle of a long Southern California vacation that began with the Triple Crown Sports Red, White and Blue Tournament, in which they won, held the weekend of June 23-24 and will conclude with the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship, slated for July 28-Aug. 4. In between, the Cal A’s will also participate in the Champions Cup and play in several friendlies.

Of course, when a large group from Hawai’i comes to Southern California, or other parts of the mainland, the cost of everything plays a big factor. Au says the program will have spent roughly $170,000 for the entire trip for everything and that for each player, it cost approximately $5.500. They made the decision to come to Southern California for the summer in early 2018.

In fact, when they arrived here last month, the teams did some community service for the ABC7 Food Bank on June 15 and were featured on television. The Cal A’s were also covered by a Hawaiian media outlet for another reason. In the championship game of the Red, White and Blue Tournament, a pair of players helped an opposing player walk to fist base after she had hurt herself after hitting a double.

“There’s a lot of stirring going on here,” Iseri said. “There’s a lot of people asking whether or not we can expand [more] in Hawai’i because the tryouts are going to be crazy. We’re not going to do it unless the right people are in place. We’re putting all the right people in place to support it. If I don’t have the support to do it, I’m not going to do it. And I’m not just going to bring a team in to bring a team in. That’s not what we’re about.”

Now that the first season for the Cal A’s Hawai’i teams is coming to a close, there have been minor talks about adding more Cal A’s teams on the islands.

“I believe so,” Au said. “When I first started coaching, it was hard for mainland programs or So Cal teams to come in because I tried once before with another program. But the timing wasn’t right. It’s a culture; it’s a culture in softball. Let alone being on the islands, it’s a culture. So, that’s what we’re trying to change. With Brian sharing that vision with us and us as coaches and let alone the success that we’ve had as coaches, I think we can change that culture and try to make it catch up.”

Au also said if Iseri wasn’t in the picture, he doesn’t think all of this would be possible because of the exposure and the networking and the connections here.

“Unless someone back in Hawai’i has that same type of…I think in reverse, I don’t think it would work because it’s just a struggle cost-wise,” he said.

 

 

 

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