CNMI All-Stars shine

It was yet another memorable year for sports in the CNMI. With its yearlong sunny weather, the Commonwealth hosts a bevy of sports that both residents and off-island guests enjoy—making it difficult to decide the sports story of the year.

For 2016, the Saipan Tribune turns to America’s favorite pastime as No. 1, specifically the CNMI All-Stars comeback win in the championship game of the Inaugural Micronesian Baseball Classic.

The CNMI All-Stars turned an impending loss to an epic win against long-time rival Guam to rule the first-ever Micronesian Baseball Classic.

In that sweltering July summer heat, Guam seemed poised to steal the thunder from the host in front of the one-sided crowd at the Francisco “Tan Ko” Palacios Ballfield as the visiting team once led by 11 runs in the finale, 13-2, and was one out away from completing the upset when the CNMI pulled off the mother of all comebacks en route to a thrilling 15-14 victory in extra innings.

Catcher Virgil Secharmidal and centerfielder Juan Iguel teamed up in the championship-winning run at the bottom of the 10th inning. Secharmidal, with three balls, two strikes, and two outs, made contact with the ball that headed up to first base. Guam’s Mike Peredo then leapt for a catch and had a hand on the ball, but eventually lost it, giving Iguel enough time to sprint from second to home to end the more than three-hour title game.

The come-from-behind victory over Guam capped the CNMI All-Stars’ perfect run in the four-nation tournament. The Henry Lizama-managed squad swept the round-robin preliminary after beating Palau, Kosrae, and Guam. The selection then faced Guam anew in the semis and won, 15-5, to book the first finals berth. Guam went on to arrange its third duel against the CNMI All-Stars after topping Palau in the battle for the last finals seat.

The visiting team’s strong start in the winner-take-all title match caught the CNMI All-Stars flatfooted before an over-the-fence solo homer from Brian Camacho at the bottom of the ninth inning sparked the eventual winners’ rally. Camacho was the leadoff batter in the pivotal inning, which started with the CNMI All-Stars behind, 9-14. Brothers Juan, Lamarc, and Jesus Iguel, John Tudela, and Ben Jones then followed Camacho’s lead to force the standoff at the end of regulation and the top of the extra inning.

Credit also Peter Lieto for the comeback win as his steady pitching in the homestretch helped the team’s cause. He allowed only three hits and one earned run, while walking only two in 7.3 innings pitched and striking four.

2. Lee rises; Tan, Heras gain rankings

The CNMI’s Carol Lee barged into the Top 500 world rankings in the Juniors ITF.

Lee, who started the season at No. 748, climbed to No. 443 in July this year, making her the highest ranked female player in the entire Pacific. She owned the second best world ranking among the CNMI players, just a few notches behind former junior netter Ji Hoon Heo, who was ranked No. 440 in 2010. As of Dec. 26, 2016, Lee is still in the Top 500 (No. 470) after earning combined 117.5 (singles and doubles) ranking points.

The Commonwealth bet got 105 ranking points in singles and 50 in doubles. Lee, who was just 14 years old when she played against a bunch of 18 year old players in Juniors ITF tournaments this year, posted a 19-8 record in singles this season and 9-7 in doubles, while her career records are listed at 27-15 (singles) and 13-14 (doubles).

Lee gained more ranking points this year after making it to the finals of the singles event of the Open Junior BNP PARIBAS de Nouvelle-Caledonie in New Caledonia and Oceania Open Junior Championships in Fiji.

Tania Tan and Isabel Heras joined the same tournament in New Caledonia and together they won their first round match to get ranking points for the first time. Tan and Heras were awarded with five ranking points apiece for prevailing in their doubles game against Australia’s Luciana Kunkel and Mia Savio, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

The victory put the two CNMI players at the No. 2,212 spot in the world rankings. Tan was ranked as high as No. 2,200 and is at No. 2,448 at press time. Heras, on the other hand, rose to as high as No. 1,878 as she got two more doubles wins (with American Bryn Johnson in the Oceania Open Junior Championships and Kunkel in the Oceania Closed Junior Championships). With 30 doubles ranking points and combined 7.5, she is now at No. 1,971.

3. SSC, Tsunami swimmers set records

Twelve CNMI age group records fell this year.

Saipan Swim Club’s Lennosuke Suzuki was the first to set a new mark in 2016 after posting 28.13 seconds in the 2016 SSC Pentathlon Meet in February, surpassing the 28.16 seconds Joshua Taitano registered on May 6, 1994 in the boys 11 to 12 division.

The SSC swimmer then got two three marks during the 2016 SSC International Invitational Meet in March—1:01.48 in the 100m freestyle, 2:17.20 in the 200m freestyle, and 2:34.15 in 200m individual medley.

In May, the now Guam-based Miku Tammy of Tsunami Saipan had a fitting farewell as she earned a record in the 50m butterfly (32.33 seconds) in the girls 13 to 14 age group during the NMISF Closing Swim Meet for the 2015-206 season.

At the start of the 2016-2017 season in October, it was the turn of Lennosuke’s brother, Jinnosuke, to post a record. Jinnosuke established new marks in 100m (1:06.93) and 200m freestyle (2:24.58) in the boys 9 to 10 age group.

Tsunami Saipan’s Isaiah Aleksenko joined the same opening meet and registered the new record in the 50m freestyle (30.68 seconds) in the similar age group. Aleksenko also crushed two more marks in his division after timing in at 5:08.50 in the 400m freestyle and 10:34.52 in the 800m freestyle during the NMISF Meet 3 held early this year.

Aleksenko’s fellow Tsunami swimmers Nanaka Watanabe and Juhn Tenorio had record-breaking swims, too. Watanabe posted new marks in the girls 9 to 10’s 100m breaststroke (1:30.91) and 50m breaststroke (41.63 seconds), while Tenorio’s record came in the 50m backstroke (33.56 seconds) in the boys 11 to 12 division.

Tsunami Saipan’s Ashley Dangol missed the local age group records this season since she moved up to the higher age group, but set a new mark in the Tokyo Junior Sprint 2016. She timed in at 33.93 seconds in the 50m butterfly to eclipse the 33.95 Michiko Shimokawa of Tokyo Swimming Center set in 2002 in the girls 9-year-old division of the event.

Besides Dangol, five more CNMI swimmers saw action in international tournaments this year. In June Victoria Chentsova, Salofi Welch, Christian Villacrusis, and Lennosuke Suzuki represented the CNMI in the XI Oceania Championships in Fiji. Then early this month, Villacrusis and Welch joined Angel De Jesus on the CNMI Team that competed in the 13th FINA World Swimming Championships in Windsor, Canada.

4. Finest junior tennis players

The CNMI Junior Tennis Team had an outstanding showing in the Pacific Oceania Junior Championships this year.

The Jeff Race-coached squad collected four titles—the most by any nation that competed in the annual tournament in Fiji. The Commonwealth defeated favored and perennial first placer Tahiti and the 12 other island-nations in the race for the most championships in the POJC. Tahiti had three titles, while Fiji and Vanuatu got two each.

Carol Lee delivered two crowns for the CNMI with her victory in the girls U16 singles and in the doubles where she partnered with Isabel Heras. Robbie Schorr duplicated Lee’s feat as he triumphed in the boys U14 singles and doubles (with Ken Song).

Besides the four first place finishes, Race’s wards also took two runner-up honors with Ji Min Woo and Seung Jin Paik and Conatsu Kaga and Malika Miyawaki advancing to the finals of the boys U12 and girls U14 divisions, respectively.

The CNMI’s success in the POJC came after it dominated anew the 2016 North Pacific Regional Championships held on Saipan two months earlier.

Malika Miyawaki swept the girls U14 singles and doubles (Conatsu Kaga) crowns in the regional tournament, while Schorr also went 2-for-2 in the boys division, partnering with Tony Kim in the doubles. Schorr also topped the Pacific Oceania U14 Circuit rankings, while Miyawaki finished second.

Besides the four titles, the CNMI gained eight semis berths and 14 of its players (plus three more early qualifiers) earned slots on the North Pacific Team that competed in the POJC.

With the Commonwealth’s strong showing in the NPQ and POJC, several of its players were given slots on the Pacific Oceania Touring Team that will be competing in Australia and New Zealand next year.

5. Sapong leads medal haul in Pohnpei

Zarinae Sapong got a gold medal instead of her high school diploma last June 2 when she topped the 100m run in the 2016 Micronesian Athletics Championships.

Sapong, who missed her graduation rites at Marianas High School as she had to fly to Pohnpei to suit up for the CNMI Team in the MAC, went on to win one more gold medal, one silver, and two bronzes en route to bringing home the Outstanding Female Athlete award in the regional competition.

The sprinter also ruled the 200m run (27.87 seconds), was runner-up in the 400m (1:08.80), and helped the CNMI finish third in the 4x100m and 4x400m relay races.

Sapong and her teammates combined for the Commonwealth’s seven gold, four silver, and three bronze-medal haul. Jerald Castillo and Chloe Salvosa gave the CNMI two gold medals each, Nick Gross had one, while Bernadette Horey and Conatsu Kaga earned one and two silvers, respectively. Salvosa, Horey, Sapong, and Pinyarat Shankweiller teamed up in the Commonwealth’s bronze medal finishes in the 4x400m and 4x100m relays.

6. Sweet sweep for MOC paddlers

Marianas Outrigger Club’s men’s team made history in this year’s Micronesian Cup held in the waters off Meyuns Seaplane Ramp in Koror, Palau.

MOC’s paddlers swept all three events in their division—a first for any CNMI team that joined the Micro Cup.

The Dino Manning-captained MOC ruled the 500m and 1,500m sprints and the long-distance race, defeating teams from host Palau, Guam, Hong Kong, and another CNMI squad Saipan Paddling Club. MOC’s winning crewmembers were Jose Quan, Vince Tudela, Bobby Cruz, Rich Salas, Ketson “Jack” Kabiriel, Billy Grow, Angel San Nicolas, and James Lee.

Napu Outrigger Canoe Club also competed in the Micro Cup, fielding three youth teams, which returned to the islands victorious, too.

Napu’s youth paddlers recorded Top 3 finishes in the junior mix 500m, 1,500m, and long-distance course. The club’s youth team was composed of Ryan Aguon, Brandon Cabrera, Kyle Reyes, Sammy Litulumar, Leon Laniyo, Hekido Helgen, Daven Hocog, Raven Igisaiar, Daydra Hocog, Isabel Ito, Julianna Hanson, Rika Diaz, Jewel Cubangbang, Dhalian Salas, Camille Muna, Rachel Tudela, Leisha Guerrero Mendiola, and Mayiah Duenas, while Jason Tarkong was the coach.

7. International exposure, training for national soccer teams

Northern Marianas Islands Football Association, through the help of the Asian Football Confederation and the East Asian Football Association, continued to provide CNMI national teams opportunities to get better and keep up with their counterparts.

This year, the Commonwealth’s national players (adults and youths) joined six off-island tournaments, went to training camps in California and Japan, and played several training matches against visiting Japanese teams.

In May, the CNMI Girls U14 National Team challenged powerhouse teams Japan, South Korea, and China in the AFC U14 Girls Regional Championships held at the Xianghe Football Training Center in Beijing.

A month later, the Commonwealth’s men’s and women’s squads played in the EAFF E-1 Football Championships 2017 Round 1 at the Guam Football Association National Training Center in Dededo. The men’s crew dueled Macau, Chinese-Taipei, and Mongolia, while the women’s team played against Guam and Macau.

Before the EAFF competition in Guam, some members of the Blue Ayuyus were in San Diego for a five-day training camp under NMIFA technical director and CNMI head coach Kiyoshi Sekiguchi.

The Commonwealth’s players (girls U16 team members) also went to Weifang, China in August for the AFC U-16 Women’s Championships 2017 Qualifier and they squared off against the Philippines, Malaysia, India, and South Korea.

A few days after the conclusion of the U16 tournament, focused was shifted to the CNMI U14 Boys National Team that joined the AFC U14 Regional (East) Festival of Football 2016 in Xianghe National Football Training Center in Beijing and won the Fair Play Award.

The CNMI was back in China for less than a month, as its U19 women’s team competed in the AFC U19 Women’s Championship 2017 Qualifier in Nanjing, against Australia and Jordan.

Meanwhile, the CNMI Boys U17 National Team did not have an off-island tournament, but went to Japan last month for a training camp, while the same squad and other youth teams had training matches against five Japanese crews that visited Saipan early this year.

8. Track facility resurfacing starts

Finally, after more than two years, the Oleai Sports Complex’s track and field facility got its much-needed facelift.

The track resurfacing work began early this month, thanks to the Northern Marianas Housing Corp. for allocating NMSA Program Year 2014 CDBG Funds in the amount of $772,368 and Program Year 2015 CDBG Funds in the amount of $132,744 for the project. The Marianas Visitors Authority also chipped in $250,000 for the improvement of the facility. Northern Marianas Sports Association, through its executive director Tony Rogolifoi and vice president Kurt Barnes, coordinated the project and worked closely with the government agencies in finding funds for the resurfacing work.

Tang’s Corp. is the contractor for the project, which should be done after 150 days since the notice to proceed was released last Nov. 15.

The eight-lane track facility has to regain its Level II certification from the International Association of Athletics Federations for the CNMI to host international and regional competitions and prepare the Commonwealth for its hosting of the Pacific Mini Games in 2021.

Other facilities at the sports complex will also undergo repair work after funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the Capital Improvement Projects were also approved this year.

9. Sports tourism thriving

Local sports federations and the Marianas Visitors Authority worked together in bringing visitors to the island and having them compete in various tournaments.

The Saipan Marathon drew the most off-island athletes in 2016 with over 300 runners spread out in 10K, half marathon, marathon, and ultra marathon races. More than 500 joined the annual event held in April.

A month before the Saipan Marathon, the island also hosted the XTERRA Saipan Championship and Tagaman Triathlon that lured pros and amateur triathletes from Korea, China, Taiwan, Australia, Philipines, Switzerland, Guam, Russia, and Japan.

More Japanese tourists/athletes come to Saipan in September to participate in the 2nd Annual Plumeria Swim held at Kilili Beach, while the season-ending Hell of Marianas Century Cycle Race featured more visiting athletes.

Other Saipan-hosted tournaments that drew off-island participants were the Saipan Swim Club International Invitational Swim Meet and the 2016 Settsu-Saipan Friendship Basketball Tournament.

10. CNMI to have its own artificial turf

What has started as a dream several years ago is slowly becoming a reality as the CNMI will soon have its own artificial soccer turf.

The NMI Soccer Training Center broke ground in October with no less than Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Northern Mariana Islands Football Association president Jerry Tan leading the ceremony.

The facility will be built in a 48,000-square meter lot in Koblerville and will house the NMIFA office, covered bleachers, locker rooms, rest rooms, a conference room, and ample parking lots. NMIFA pegged the cost of creating the facility between $1.5 and $2 million. No government funds will be used to construct NMI Soccer Training Center as NMIFA will work on its on-island and off-island donors to complete the project, which may be done by July next year.

Once done, the facility will be used for trainings and games of clubs and national teams and can also host off-island squads, bringing additional tourists to the island.

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Roselyn Monroyo | Reporter
Roselyn Monroyo is the sports reporter of Saipan Tribune. She has been covering sports competitions for 16 years. She is a basketball fan and learned to write baseball and football stories when she came to Saipan in 2005.

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