Rock Chalk Weekly: Hawaii Five-6
Written by James Saat, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
March 23, 2014 was a typical day in Pearl City, Hawaii. The city on the Island of Oahu recorded a low of 70 and a high of 81 degrees, with a sprinkling of rain too light to inconvenience anyone. On the upswing of spring, flowers such as plumeria and hibiscus start to brighten spots of land with their deep, vibrant colors. The Hawaiian surf season is ending in March, the eternal tug-of-war between the moon and the ocean leaving its most violent part of the year. Visitors would call this weather and scenery perfection, yet perfection implies rarity. This is just a gorgeous random Sunday sandwiched between an equally wonderful Saturday and Monday.
Days like these cause people to question why Justin Protacio ever left for Kansas.
The snow fell hard in Lawrence on that same day. Snowfall in the spring is fairly normal in Kansas. After two inches of snow were shoveled off of Hoglund Park, the baseball team played its last game in a series against Dartmouth, dropping the game 3-2, but winning the three-game series. This group of Jayhawks would go on to have a historic season for Kansas, finishing third in the Big 12 (best in Kansas history) and appearing in the program’s fifth NCAA Tournament ever. Predicted by league coaches in the preseason to finish last in the conference, the 2014 Jayhawk squad fought through expectations, adversity, and even some bad weather en route to one of the best seasons in program history.
At the heart of this team were four upperclassmen: senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge, junior left fielder Michael Suiter, junior pitcher Robert Kahana and junior shortstop Protacio. The three batters combined to hit .295 and drove in 82 runs. Kahana recorded an ERA of 3.36 in 85.2 innings pitched while chalking up a 4-7 record. And, perhaps more amazingly, these four young men starring on a baseball team in the United States’ most landlocked state all hailed from Hawaii.
The trip to the 2014 NCAA Regionals was just a single highlight of one of the most unique and successful eras in the history of KU baseball. Starting in 2007 Kansas has listed at least one Hawaiian on its roster, totaling five in the past nine seasons. Every single Hawaiian that has played for head coach Ritch Price has made it to the NCAA Tournament, and three have signed professional contracts. Now a senior, Protacio is the lone Hawaiian on the roster.
Protacio’s path to Kansas can be traced back to one player and one week back in 2006. Wally Marciel is now the Director of Baseball Operations for Kansas, but back in 2006 he was a talented high school pitcher looking for a chance to play Division I baseball.
“Not a lot of big Division I coaches come to Hawaii to recruit. It’s kind of expensive plus why go there if you can go to Arizona or California and just watch the same kids? Because the kids are going to travel there to get looked at, that’s what I did,” said Marciel. “I was lucky enough to go to the Stanford camp. I played on a team for Coach Price and he recruited me from that point on.”
Price loved coaching the overlooked prospect and envisioned him being an integral part of his rotation. There was something else he liked about him too.
“Wally was on my team so I had an opportunity to spend a week with him. In addition to being able to just watch his skill set, I was able to evaluate the type of person he was and what he was looking for in his college experience,” Price said. “When the week was over I thought he was a clean-cut, first-class, All-American kid from a great family.”
Behind football, baseball is Hawaii’s biggest sport. Since 2001, Hawaii has been one of eight teams representing the U.S. in the Little League World Series four times, very impressive for a state that represents less than one percent of the U.S.’ population. The state’s small population and distance from the mainland make it difficult for high school athletes to gain exposure, though many desire to leave the islands for college.
“You’re raised in Hawaii to go to the mainland to go to college. It may be the only time that you leave the island because most kids want to go back and live there. Families look out for each other,” said Price. “So if you bring in a young man like Wally, and Wally was the state high school player of the year when he came to KU, the next year, they see how good things are going for him; they want to send their friends to Kansas because of Wally’s experience. That’s how it started.”
Like those before him, Protacio found the biting cold to be his biggest adjustment to KU. But he doesn’t mind the cold anymore. He, like Price, believes it makes him tougher and provides an advantage over warm-weather teams travelling to Lawrence.
“It was an easy adjustment after my first year here. The cold was never really a factor anymore. Coach Price really emphasizes playing out there. The only way we’re not going to practice is if it’s pouring rain or the field is completely covered in snow.” Protacio added, “We actually did play a game last year where we shoveled the snow.”
One of the reasons why Protacio was willing to trade in the sunshine for snow was the positive experiences of Marciel and Eldredge, as well as the commitments of fellow Hawaiians Suiter and Kahana.
“Wally came here; he’s a few years older than me. I always used to watch him when he was in high school. After him was Ka’iana, I played against him in high school,” said Protacio. “I’ve played against Robert since I was around 10 years old in Little League. We were one town down from each other. I played against Michael starting in middle school. He went to my rival high school in baseball.”
The other reason Protacio chose KU is not unique to Hawaiians, the desire to leave the familiarity of home and develop himself in a brand-new environment.
“I just wanted to try something new; get away from my parents and grow up on my own,” he said.
Protacio couldn’t have picked a better spot for himself to develop as a player and a young man. Price is renowned for his ability to take players overlooked by the professional teams and developing them into professional-level talent. He has coached 55 players that have signed professional contracts during his time at KU.
Price’s challenge developing Protacio was maximizing the potential hidden in his 5-foot-6 frame. The biggest hurdle was teaching Protacio to play within his size; that is, use his small strike zone to get walks, get on base, work his speed on the baselines and play good infield defense. Power hitting is not in Protacio’s repertoire, the goals of his at-bats are to take a lot of pitches, base hits, drawing walks and putting up a fight before going out. Everyone believes that if Protacio gets on base, his teammates will help bring him home.
Protacio’s development can be labeled a resounding success. His first three years saw improvement in all the statistics the coaching staff want him to do well in; batting average, runs scored and on-base percentage. He has grown into a senior captain and one of the most reliable players on and off the field for Kansas. In 2014 he was named an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention and was placed on the Spring Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll. His head coach isn’t too surprised by Protacio’s success.
“He was first-team all-state three years in a row, (the) first player from Hawaii to do that. You see that little guy standing there at shortstop and is a left-handed hitter, I knew that if he hit .280 his on-base percentage would be .420 because he would walk enough to have a huge on-base percentage because of how small his strike zone is,” recounted Price. “The west coast guys all backed off. They thought he was undersized and he wouldn’t be physical enough to play with the bat. I’ve had two or three schools that started to recruit him and backed out, and they’ve since told me they made a mistake because he’s come here and done really well.”
As many college baseball players experience, Protacio’s senior numbers have dipped from his junior year. The coaches around the Big 12 have had three years to study Protacio’s strengths and weaknesses. They know how to pitch against him and take away the advantages provided by his small stature. Despite his down numbers, Portacio’s energy, presence and commitment to improve have provided valuable leadership for a young Kansas team that lost nine players from the team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Protacio’s college career will come to an end this season. A health and physical education major, Protacio will student-teach in the fall and graduate from the University of Kansas afterward. His academic studies and experience in baseball will help him achieve his long-term goal of becoming a high school head coach in his home state of Hawaii. He will look back on his time as a Jayhawk with fond memories; a rewarding three years of hard work with a trip to the NCAA Tournament, a team trip to the Dominican Republic his sophomore year and, most of all, the brotherhood amongst his teammates that can only be formed by being together everyday from August to the end of baseball season each year. When this chapter of his life closes, it will also put an end to the Hawaii-Kansas connection that lasted nine seasons in Lawrence.
If Coach Price has his way, this will just be a temporary break from the Hawaii pipeline. The man who thinks a Tommy Bahama shirt is fashionable in any kind of weather can find reasons to visit Hawaii for just the food and music alone, though it’s the talent and spirit of the baseball players he finds there that keep him going back every year.
“I’ve come up second on the last four Hawaiian guys I’ve gone after. I’d like (the pipeline to Hawaii) to continue very much so,” Price said. “(If) you look at the five Hawaiian kids that have played here, every one of them has been an outstanding player. Four of five of them will play professional baseball, and they’ve all been great teammates.”
The next step in Protacio’s playing career will be trying to catch on to a professional team. This is not an easy task due to his height and declining statistics. His versatility in the infield, he started one year at second base and two at shortstop, and rediscovering his discipline at the plate will certainly help him overcome the latest challenge in his career. His coach, for one, certainly believes Protacio has earned a shot to play at the next level.
“It would be a great way for his career to end because when you’re 5-foot-6, your whole life nobody is giving you a chance. Nobody is giving you a chance to play Division I baseball, nobody is giving you a chance to play professional baseball, Price said. “We preach overachieve here and that’s one of the core values of our program. He’s overachieved, he’s proven people wrong, and I hope he gets that final opportunity to play professional baseball.”
The Major League Baseball draft is held in June. Drafted players can sign and start playing in the minor leagues immediately after. Summertime is one of the most popular tourist seasons in Hawaii. The beaches are full of people soaking up some of the world’s most beautiful scenery and weather. Price might get a sliver of this heaven-on-earth on a recruiting trip, trying to reinvigorate the Hawaiian pipeline. As for Protacio, he might not mind trading in the azure oceans and white sandy beaches for some dirt and grass.
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