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Swinging for Safeco fences... and beyond
Kaiea Higa has an impressive swing. And not just for a 10 year old. Or for a girl. But for anybody.
“The skills are from my mom, strength from my dad,” said Kaiea, a 5-foot slugger.
“I’m not gonna argue with that,” responded her dad, Grant, on his way to shag fly balls in the outfield.
Kaiea is Maple Valley’s best chance at playing in this year’s Major League All Star Game, as she will be participating in the MLB’s Pitch, Hit & Run Team Championship on Sunday, June 15, after the Seattle Mariners game. She will be introduced on the field prior to the game and will compete afterwards. The national skills program is for boys and girls aged 7-13. It lets the youth showcase their pitching, hitting and running abilities.
Kaiea, a student at Glacier Park Elementary who plays fastpitch for the Auburn Acers 10U team, won the local Pitch, Hit & Run competition in Kent and then took the Sectionals contest crown in Puyallup on Memorial Day.
“She even had higher scores than the 13-14-year-old boys,” Grant said.
If Kaiea finishes with a score in the top three, of 90, in her age bracket, she will be flown to the MLB All-Star game in Minneapolis for a chance to participate in the National Finals and the All-Star game festivities.
Like a poised veteran dealing with the media, Kaiea said she is excited to make it this far and making it to the national round would be “just a bonus.”
“I was kinda nervous until mom told me it’s just for fun,” Kaiea said of the first competition. “It’s everything I know how to do.”
Kaiea’s mom Michelle, who played collegiate softball for Oregon State from 1992-95, said Kaiea only attempted the competition because there was no tournament to play in over that weekend.
“She won all of the events: hitting, pitching and running,” Michelle said. “She advanced to the Sectionals and did even better.”
Kaiea wears size 10 shoes and is one of, if not the, tallest person in her grade. As she and her mom play catch, the ball makes a firm popping sound. There’s power and skill behind each throw.
“She’s definitely better than me,” Michelle said.
“At this age,” Kaiea adds modestly.
While the softball prowess is certainly in Kaiea’s genes, so is the strength.
Grant spent June 6-7 at the Master’s America’s Strongest Man competition in Indiana, where he finished fifth out of 10. He has returned in time to cheer his daughter on from the stands when she is introduced on the field. Some of Kaiea’s teachers, friends and family also plan to attend the game for support.
“I was super stoked to have it on Father’s Day,” Grant said. “It is a once in a lifetime thing.”
The pitch challenge tests accuracy of throwing strikes in the designated “strike zone” target from 35 feet away. Underhand or overhand is accepted. Each competitor has six attempts to hit the “strike zone.”
Kaiea does not pitcher for her softball team and decided to pitch overhand.
“I tell her three out of six is great; four out of six is phenomenal,” Michelle said. “She ended up hitting five.”
The hitting portion involves striking a ball from a batting tee along a tape measure from home plate. Hits are measured for distance and accuracy up the middle. Each competitor has three swings, the best of which counts toward the score. The ball is marked where it lands on the fly, not where it rolls.
Kaiea loves to hit and follows a specific routine: letting the bat role down her arm and shifting her weight, focusing on the ball sitting on the tee.
She lines up her feet and considers the angle of her hands. Her form is quite remarkable for a 10 year old, with ever swing stinging the ball right back up the middle.
Michelle recently pitched to her daughter and saw the ball screaming right back up the middle.
“I thought I was gonna cry,” Michelle said. “I seriously thought you broke my hand.”
Michelle said the boys winner in the 13-year-old division in Sectionals struck the ball 188 feet. Kaiea, in the 9- and 10-year-old group, belted hers 166 feet.
“She crushed it,” Michelle said.
The run portion measures speed in a sprint from the start line at second base, touching third base and finishing at home plate. The girls run 120 feet, while the boys 160 feet.
Kaiea may not be the fastest, but Michelle says she is “a smart runner,” who is adept at maximizing her time.
For making it this far, Kaiea will receive a hat, t-shirt, Team Championship award and two Mariners tickets.
Safeco field is intimidating, but Kaiea still puts her chances of moving on at an eight out of 10. She is excited. Mainly because she loves the sport so much.
Before school, Kaiea asks to play catch. She DVR’s the softball College World Series games, keeping score at home. It’s her passion. Michelle is proud that her daughter is not only having fun, but also excelling.
“It’s exciting to see that she loves the sport,” she said. “She’s having fun. The main thing is we want to keep her busy.”