Kainoa Obrey is the only drafted player from the MWC last year to return this season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
If you drive by Miller Park these days you are likely to see one of BYU's baseball stars battling the bitter cold to work on his game. The cold is not something he's accustomed to nor something he prefers--but whatever it takes to improve is worth it to him.
The BYU baseball team enjoyed success last season despite having one of the team's best players and best kept secrets on the bench. Kainoa Obrey 6-3, 225, Jr., from Honolulu, Hawai`i played in just 13 games during the 2002 campaign. His name is pronounced k-IGH-noh-uh OH-bree.
BYU head coach Vance Law knows what the team missed not having him in the lineup.
"He's a big strong kid who can hit the ball a mile," said Law.
Obrey plays third base for BYU and has become one of the most feared hitters in the Mountain West Conference, but his junior season was cut short due to an injury suffered in practice last fall.
"We were doing base running drills and I went to plant and I couldn't because of the pain in my back," Obrey said.
The injury was diagnosed as a slight herniated disk in his lower back--an injury that makes it very painful to swing a bat or pick up ground balls. Obrey was out most of fall drills but started to feel better as the season drew closer.
"I thought I could tough it out and play through the pain but it just hurt too much," he said.
Just 13 games into the season, Obrey hung up his cleats to let his back heal.
Kainoa is the son of John Obrey and Iwalani Dayton. He grew up on the island of Oahu playing baseball and volleyball. He attended Iolani High school--a private school which includes kindergarten through 12th grade. He lettered three times in volleyball during high school--but his main interest has always been baseball.
"I always thought baseball was my best chance to play in college and hopefully play professionally," Obrey said.
He began building his baseball resume early in his career. Obrey was named Gatorade State Player of the Year as a prep junior. He earned all-league and all-star honors while helping his team to a sixth -place national ranking in 1997.
He led his team to two state championships and was named the 1999 American Legion State Tournament MVP and won the batting title.
While achieving much success Obrey began thinking about the next level--somewhere that would offer him an education and a chance to play ball.
To his surprise, the University of Hawai`i didn't do much to keep him on the island, which Obrey admits was a little disappointing.
He kept his options open and shopped around for a school that would offer him a scholarship.
Given his talent and accomplishments it's not hard to see why BYU came knocking on his door. Former BYU assistant coach David Eldredge is a Hawai`i native an began expressing interest in Obrey.
BYU liked what they saw and offered Obrey a scholarship. "My mom was real happy when BYU came into the picture. She was excited about the opportunity for me to come here and that factored into my decision," he said.
Obrey signed a letter of intent before even visiting BYU and has never regretted his decision.
"I am happy I came here, I would recommend BYU to anyone," he said.
Perhaps influenced by Obrey's decision, long-time friend from home and teammate Doug Jackson also chose to play ball at BYU. Obrey says Jackson's decision to play at BYU doesn't have anything to do with him, but he is glad to have his friend here.
The two can rarely be seen without the other.
After their freshman year they both returned to Hawai`i and played ball on the island. Since then, they have spent their time-off playing in summer leagues on the east coast.
In 2001 Obrey played for the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Obrey was named to the all-star team and was named as one of the leagues Top 10 Prospects.
During the past summer the two friends played in the Cape Cod League. Their teams were located just 10 minutes apart and they were able to spend time together when they weren't playing ball.
Obrey says playing in those leagues gave him a good chance to improve since they played 45 games in two months.
"When you play almost every day it's easier to work on things and get into a rhythm rather than playing a few days then taking a few off like in college."
As a freshman Obrey was named Honorable Mention Freshman All-America by Collegiate Baseball magazine. He hit a team-high nine homers and batted .342 overall. He hit an 11th-inning home run to beat San Diego State 7-6.
Obrey led the team in hitting his sophomore year with a batting average of .381. He had 13 homeruns and 29 doubles. He hit a grand slam against New Mexico off prep teammate Marvin Wong.
His junior season he was named to Collegiate Baseball magazine's pre-season All-America third team. Despite the pain in his back, he hit a three-run homerun in the 14th inning to beat UC Irvine for the first Cougar win of the season. A few games later the pain increased and Obrey decided he couldn't play anymore that season.
Obrey was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 11th round and was given the option to leave BYU for the pros. He decided not to go.
"We talked about it for a few weeks and decided that I would come back to BYU," Obrey said. "I am so close to graduating and that is something I have to do."
Obrey hopes after a full, healthy season his value will increase in the eyes of the pro scouts. He said Kansas City had some concerns regarding the status of his back.
After losing big hitters Dave Jensen and Matt Carson to the draft, Obrey understands his status.
"My role on the team is to drive in runs. I need to look for extra base hits and bring guys in," Obrey said.
Coach Law echoed Obrey's comments and agrees with Obrey's role on the team.
"We are looking for him to drive in a lot of runs this year. He is going to be our big RBI man this season," Law said.
Whether or not Obrey can drive in a lot of runs will influence the Cougar's season and Obrey's career in baseball.
"His future depends on how well he can drive in runs," Law said.
Obrey is not very vocal, but he possess what Law calls "quiet intensity." Law says Obrey is not afraid to vocalize his opinion if things aren't going as they should.
Obrey returns the praise to his coach and says he has been able to learn a lot from Law because of his experience.
"He is a great coach," Obrey said. "He has helped me out so much defensively because he played third base. He has also taught me so much about hitting-especially with a wood bat. There is so much more skill involved when swinging a wood bat."
Law has his players using wooden bats during workouts this fall. Obrey feels using the wood bat has forced him to generate more power with his body and to find the sweet spot of the bat.
"With a metal bat you can cheat hits when you get jammed because the bat won't break. You have to be more disciplined with a wooden bat," Obrey said.
Coming in to this season, expectations are high for BYU since the team fared so well and made it to the NCAA Tournament last year. Obrey is excited to play a full season and to see what he can do.
According to Law, Obrey has the ability to decide how good he wants to be. When asked to describe Obrey's talent in a few words Law chose "un-tapped potential.
"Once in a while everything he has learned comes together and he hits the ball as hard as anyone I've ever seen. He could put baseballs on the steps of the Marriott Center."
Obrey isn't really thinking too far down the road yet.
"First things first, I just want to play all season and stay healthy," he said.
Law thinks if he stays healthy he could be one of the top hitters in the nation.
One day, Obrey's days at BYU will be done and playing everyday somewhere is pretty realistic.
The Island Boy has only one preference when it comes to where he plays professional ball, "hopefully, somewhere warm," he said with a smile.