Punahou softball standout Asia Lee forced to fill some big shoes

·9 min read

Mar. 22—Dean Lee sits near the outfield fence at Punahou's home games.

Lee, uncle of third baseman Asia Lee, keeps the energy flowing. His favorite holler is "AKAK, AKAK !" No one understands the meaning aside from Lee, the scholar-athlete with a 3.72 grade-point average and softball scholarship from the University of the Pacific.

"He's very loud. Before, he wasn't usually yelling, but this year, he's yelling some random stuff. He came up with this weird name for my family, " Asia explained. "My name starts with an 'A, ' my sisters are K (Kalena ), A (Aria ) and K (Kawena ). So when I'm hitting, I can hear him yelling, 'Akak, Akak !' Or even when I'm on the field. It makes me laugh."

Seemingly random, at least until now.

"I don't think anybody knows what that is, " Lee said.

Dean Lee is doing what he can, in his humorous way, to help fill the void. His brother, Scott, was always there at Punahou games. A quiet boy growing up who became more talkative, outspoken as he became a man.

The same trend is happening with Scott's oldest daughter, Asia. As a freshman, the Punahou third baseman did all her talking with her glove and bat. She stepped in when called upon and hit.397 with three home runs, 23 RBIs, nine stolen bases and a.457 on-base percentage.

"She can play both shortstop and third base. As a freshman, she was as good a defensive third baseman as I've seen. Line drives and one-hoppers, it's a hot box there real quick, " coach Dave "Boy " Eldredge said. "Her reaction to the ball is outstanding. We had a senior who was supposed to play third base, but she got hurt in a winter skiing accident. Asia coming in as a freshman was lights out."

Off the field, she was as quiet as can be. It was 2019, and life was close to perfect for the scholar-athlete. After completing her middle school years at Our Lady of Good Counsel, Punahou's robust, large student body and sprawling campus were a culture shock.

"There were 16 graduating kids in my class (at Our Lady of Good Counsel ). Going to Punahou, there's over 400 kids in my class. I was pretty shocked. I went to freshman camp before school started and I made some new friends."

One of her new friends was teammate Emma Rose Layaoen.

"Asia always sees the bright side of things, sees the best in people. She is disciplined and dedicated in every task, " Layaoen said.

This year, so much of the pressure has been lifted following the cancellation of the 2020 season and the'21 ILH season with no state tournament. Punahou was ranked eighth in the Star-Advertiser Softball Top 10 last week before stunning No. 1 Maryknoll. The week finished with a narrow 9-8 loss to No. 4 Kamehameha.

Throughout her freshman season, there was at least one consistently booming voice at Buffanblu softball games. Scott Lee was at his usual spot beyond the outfield fence. Dad was completely invested in his four daughters, and Asia's starting role with a prominent softball program didn't diminish his observations.

"My dad would say, 'What are you doing ? You have a bat for a reason.' When he said something, I was, oh my gosh, be quiet, I know what I did wrong. But I do miss it. We would go in the backyard after the games and work on whatever I did wrong, " Asia said.

Mom wasn't quite as vociferous.

"He was the loudest one. If you watch the OC16 games they were playing, you can hear his voice. It was fun, not obnoxious, " said his wife, Monica Lee. "All the girls, they loved him. Asia's sophomore year, they were missing the yelling of uncle Scott."

It was Labor Day weekend of 2020 when their lives changed.

"It was a regular day. They went diving all the time, " Monica Lee recalled. "He said, 'I'll have some fish.' I said, 'Bye, have fun. See you in the afternoon.'"

The call came at around 10 a.m.

"Something wasn't right. I called my mom to come and watch the girls. They drove from the North Shore while I drove from Makakilo, " she said.

At Waianae Comprehensive Health Center, it was a security guard who pulled Monica Lee aside.

"It was very not real. Did he have a heart attack ? Nope. It was a drowning. They went down to get a fish, one took their spear in the hole. They both swam up. (A ) nephew went to the buoy to get another spear gun, then two, three minutes later they came back and he was floating, " she said.

Monica Lee is at a point where she can talk about the life and loss of her husband, But the tears haven't stopped.

"He was a big guy, like 220 (pounds ), not easy to swim back in. Some civilians were on the shore and they called. My nephew was screaming for help. Then the ambulance was there and they took him to Waianae Comp, " she said. "It was like a freak accident, you could say."

Asia Lee kept almost all of it inside.

"It was a Saturday or Sunday. He was diving with my cousins early in the morning. My mom gets a call from my cousin and rushes out of the house. I'm 'What's going on, ' but she was gone already and my grandma gives us the news about what happened, " she said. "It sucked."

"He started diving a lot. He was at Makua, " Asia Lee said. "I remember getting the news and I was shocked. I didn't know what to think. I was just sitting there. I thought I was having a nightmare or something."

It didn't take long before she realized her role would change.

"My sisters were crying, screaming. I think I was 15. Kalena was 13, Aria was 8 and Kawena was 6. I felt really bad for them because they were so young, and I grew up with my dad and he taught me everything I know, and they're not going to learn what he taught me, " she said. "I don't know. It was just bad. We didn't even say anything to each other. Hugging each other the whole time."

Hour by hour, day by day, mourning did not cease. But life moved on. After two weeks, the sisters were back to the normal routine.

"I told myself that I need to step up, take on more responsibility. Checking in on my sisters more. It was just really hard for everybody, but I did what I could, " Asia said.

Once she got her driver's license, Asia drove herself and Kalena to school at Punahou. Mom took the younger ones to school in Pearl City.

By 5 :30 most mornings, Asia Lee is on the road with Kalena. During the offseason, she met with Layaoen at the weight room by 6 a.m. During the season, strength training tapers down, but the Lee sisters are still out the door early to beat the snarl.

"They don't get home until 7 :30, 8 (p.m.), so I hardly see them, " Monica Lee said.

Being strong physically and emotionally takes work. Asia, who can deadlift around 250 pounds, never lets her guard down.

"Asia is so strong. She's a really good example for her sisters. Her mom said she would pass by her bedroom door at night and hear sobbing behind the door, " Eldredge said. "She was strong when she needed to be for her family and had her own moment to mourn."

"No, she will not cry with (her sisters ). She'll do it by herself. She's too strong to show her emotions, " Monica Lee said. "It's super hard. Sometimes I feel like he even tries to help me with the grieving process. It's hard to explain. He's here. He's always in our hearts. He's always up here watching us."

When Scott Lee departed, Asia lost a dad, friend and personal coach. Scott played football in his youth, and learned to teach drills in part from watching YouTube videos.

"She has her moments. We all do, " Monica Lee said. "In the winter (club ) season, she was in a slump. She texted, 'Mommy, I can't. My swing, my swing. I said, ask your coaches. 'This is the kind of thing Daddy would help me with. He's not here. He cannot help me.' I felt so bad, I don't know what to do. I kept saying, ask your coach, " Monica said.

But what shines through is what Scott Lee imparted every day to his family of high achievers.

"He always told her it's mentality, it's attitude. If you're frustrated, you can't fix it until you change your attitude, " Monica Lee said. "I'm proud of all of them, not only Asia."

Asia remembers well.

"When I started sports, he always said, 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. I was very lazy. I didn't really want to do anything. He told me I had to work to get what I want, " she said.

Asia's senior shirt says it all.

"On the back of it it says, 'Attitude determines everything.' That's something he would tell me before every game, " she said. "Softball is a game of failure. You'll fail more than you will succeed. Flush it and work hard to become better than before."

ASIA LEE'S FAVORITES—Funniest teammate : Makanalei Lapera—Smartest teammate : Justice Tiberi—Teammate most likely to coach : Emma Rose Layaoen—Top three shows /movies : "Friends, " "The Last Song " and "Sixteen Candles "—Top three foods : Sushi (Ninja Sushi ), Reese's peanut butter cups and Uncrustables (peanut butter /grape jelly ) "When we had doubleheaders like during the Mililani tournament, somebody brought it and we went through a whole box."—Homemade food : Panadesia. "It's like lumpia, but inside is different, like pastele stew. My uncle (Sonny Santiago ) makes it for special occasions."—Music artists : Dan + Shay, Joshua Bassett, Josh Tatofi—Team /athlete : Los Angeles Dodgers, Justin Turner, Clayton Kershaw—Class /teacher : Sports psychology, Mr. Pavich—GPA : 3.72—Top three books : "Legendborn, " Harry Potter series, "The Last Song "—Bucket list : New Zealand, United Kingdom. "For my parents' anniversary, they went to New Zealand, took all these pictures and videos. I just want to go. It looks like fun."—Hidden talent : Dancing. "More like hip hop. TikTok dancing. I do it with my sisters or my teammates at school, pretty much anyone who wants to jump in."