After Gabe Gunter turns around and peers at his teammates on the state-champion Maui Little League Big League (17-18) Division All-Star team, he turns back with a smile.
"It's fun, great group of guys," Gunter said Tuesday at Maui High field. "I have been playing with these guys for three or four years now, either against them or with them. A lot of these guys were all-stars. It's like a team of all-stars."
The majority of the team garnered Maui Interscholastic League All-Star honors in the last two seasons for the various high schools they played for throughout Maui County.
Gabe Gunter (arms raised) leads the Maui Big League All-Star team in warm-up drills during practice Tuesday at Maui High field. The team starts play in the Little League West Regional in Bremerton, Wash., on Tuesday. Maui won the state tournament last week at Aiea, outscoring three opponents 30-3.
The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo
"I think we have kids from nearly every MIL baseball school," coach Kelly Fliear said.
Maui will open play in the West Regional in Bremerton, Wash., on Tuesday against the Southern California champion, the team that knocked Maui out in the semifinals last season. The six-team regional will feature two three-team pools with the top two teams in each moving to semifinals.
"You have got to win to be able to move on and you have got to be able to beat the best teams," said Gunter, who graduated from King Kekaulike in 2013 and hit .373 with 28 RBIs in 25 games for California Lutheran University in 2014.
Maui outscored three opponents at the state tournament last week in Aiea, 30-3.
Baldwin graduate Isaiah Maddela and Lahainaluna graduate Kaimana Ancog were each 5-for-8 with five walks in the tournament. The Maui News MIL Boy Athlete of the Year David Rapanot of Molokai batted 6-for-12, Gunter was 4-for-10 and Chazz Ishikawa of Maui High was 6-for-9 from the No. 7 spot in the order.
"The talent is definitely here," Gunter said. "We have a bunch of guys who are going to (junior colleges). Who knows, after junior college, what those guys can do. I think all of the players on this team will be playing college ball after this. My (college) coach says it is a gold mine out here."
Gunter is one of three players on the roster with college experience.
Maddela and Ancog will join former Baldwin pitchers Josh Nobriga and Noah Apolo at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., in the fall.
"It's unbelievable to be able to play with these guys," Maddela said. "We are all good friends and once we get on the field, we all have one mindset."
Maui manager Steve Leis said this team has a special bond, especially considering the players represent numerous high schools.
"It's a great group of kids, I think the team chemistry is good, I think they know they have a chance, so they are going to work hard," Leis said. "They have their sights on the next tournament. . . . You can see that they are really excited about their fellow teammates."
A West Regional title would send the group to Easley, S.C., for the Big League World Series.
Leis has been a Little League coach for more than 15 years and has guided several state champions. He thinks this unit might be one of the best.
"I hate to make the comparison, but these guys rank right up there," Leis said. "On the mental side of the game, they are going to do very well because they are going to draw together quite well."
Sammy Sutton, a Maui High graduate who played last season at Laney (Calif.) College, started and won the first game at the state tournament, followed by wins by Nobriga and Rapanot. Micah Richardson, Patrick Turner and Kaleb Palmer all pitched well in relief and T.J. Kanamu is also on the staff.
"To win this thing you have got to play six games in five days," Leis said of the regional tournament. "With Little League pitch counts and rest requirements, we feel like we need eight pitchers and you have to be very smart about it."
Fliear summed it up.
"This is a very talented group," he said, acknowledging that a World Series berth is possible. "I think they are championship caliber. It's a powerful lineup."
Fliear is a former assistant coach for Maui High.
"When I first started there, the rivalries were so fierce," he said. "But what I've seen over the years since Big League has been around and the Seniors (Division) giving them a chance to play together, I've seen things change. The (high school) rivalry is still there, but these guys have really become a team now, they co-mingle all the time and I think that's a good thing."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org