Former Jackson catcher catches on with another winner
After a disappointing stretch in Texas, Kawika Emsley-Pai found a home on one of the winningest college baseball teams in the nation
It went 40-15. And for the first time in four years, it didn’t win the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) World Series.
“Last year was my first taste of real losing,” said the former Jackson High School athlete. “We didn’t have a lot of good chemistry (on the team).”
First taste of real losing? In college? No, in his life.
Imagine winning nearly 73 percent of your games and feeling bad about it.
“We took that to heart,” said Emsley-Pai, a 21-year-old junior at the Lewiston, Idaho, college.
Did they ever.
Through the first 46 games this season, the Warriors — the No.1-ranked team in the NAIA — are 43-3 and riding a 12-game winning streak.
They have five regular season games remaining, including Friday and Saturday contests at Seattle University, before the double-elimination World Series which they will host May 28 through June 4. They’ll be seeking their 17th NAIA championship.
Winning is as old hat to Emsley-Pai as making money is to Warren Buffett.
During a three-year stretch as a teenager, he was on an elite team called the Seattle Stars that won four national championships. His 14-year-old team compiled a record of 105-6.
His Jackson High School team went 27-0 and won the Class 4A State tournament his junior year after a third-place finish the year before.
Then in his one and only season at the University of Texas, in which he appeared in 14 games as a catcher, the Longhorns won 39 games and captured the Big 12 Conference Tournament.
It’s no wonder that he was disappointed with the way his first season at L-C State turned out.
A year without a national title or at least a serious run at it is something the Warriors aren’t used to.
“It’s pretty much what we aim for every year,” he said. “We play every game like it’s the championship game of the World Series.”
He had even bigger things in mind when he entered the University of Texas — like a College World Series title. But things didn’t work out as he had hoped.
He got off to a rough start, not arriving at UT until January because of a back injury. Then he said he didn’t feel “totally welcome.”
“It was like, ‘Who’s the new guy?’ I didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me.”
He knew of a place that was the right fit. L-C State is nationally recognized for its baseball program because of one man: head coach Ed Cheff.
A no-nonsense guy with a fundamental approach to the game, Cheff is in his 34th year as the Warrior coach and the worst record he’s ever posted was 41-24. His teams have averaged 50 wins a year, including back-to-back squads that won 58 games apiece in 2007 and 2008. Those teams were also national champions.
Emsley-Pai was very familiar with the L-C State program, having played for 11 years (from the age of 7 through 18) in summer league baseball for one of Cheff’s former players, Ray Atkinson, the coach of those Seattle Stars teams which were so successful.
Some of what Cheff represents rubbed off on his pupil. “Ray Atkinson took a lot of characteristics of Ed Cheff,” Emsley-Pai said.
So he knew what he was getting into when he enrolled at L-C State a year ago. “Cheff is by far the toughest coach I’ve ever had,” he said. “He can get really intense and I like that. I don’t like a Sunday stroll. He wants every pitch, every out to be like the championship of the World Series.”
Another thing he likes about Cheff: Everyone’s treated the same. Which was not the feeling he got during his brief time at Texas. “I didn’t like the fact that some guys were getting away with stuff,” he said.
Cheff is such a stickler for detail that he’s been known to yank a player from the game after he popped out with a runner in scoring position. Emsley-Pai knows from first-hand experience. He was the guy who got benched.
One time Cheff pulled eight starters when they failed to hit to the opposite field — which was the game plan. “It’s pretty much his way or the highway,” Emsley-Pai said. “It makes sense if you think about it.”
The former Jackson all-stater has benefitted from Cheff’s demanding style of play. He’s batting .351 with a .516 on-base percentage, second highest on the team.
“He’s made me a tougher human being,” Emsley-Pai said. “We go through practice like no one else would. If you’re not willing to put your body on the line, you’re not going to last here. The toughest survive in this program.”
He’s not only survived, he’s thrived in the Warrior program, which includes a bout of boxing for conditioning. He got his nose broken last year. “They called it a draw,” he said, laughing.
As the starting catcher, he has won the trust of his head coach to call the pitches in a game. But that’s nothing new for him. As a 13- and 14-year-old, he was calling the pitches for the Seattle Stars.
“He had a better feel for the game than we did, a better control of the pitchers than we did as coaches,” Atkinson said. “Not to say we were terrible coaches, he just did it better.”
What’s most important is that his pitchers respect him. “He’s the ideal guy you’d like to have catching for you as far as the mental part of the game,” Cheff said. “He’s a really good catch and throw guy too.”
Emsley-Pai has had to deal with some tightness in his back this year, which knocked him out of action for a while, but Cheff says he’s “got a handle on that and he’s healthier than he’s been since he got here.”
A switch-hitter with the patience to wait for his pitch, he leads the team in walks (24) and is among the club’s leaders in being hit by pitches (9).
Cheff is big on batters having the stuff to take a pitch in the ribs. “If we move just a little bit, he’ll call time and yank us right out of the game,” Emsley-Pai said. “Small stuff. He’s all about perfection.”
A pitch to the ribs, a punch to the nose.
“You’ve got to like the guy,” Cheff said. “He’s a tough kid.”
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