The way Justin Quesada thinks would make Damien Packer – Keaau football’s best example that there is hidden gold in Puna – very, very proud.
Packer, a 2012 graduate, walked on to the University of Hawaii, despite scholarship offers from a handful of smaller colleges. Raised by his single mom Angela Packer, he eventually earned a full-ride, and became a champion for his Cougar brothers and sisters.
“My family motivates me and where I came from. Puna doesn’t necessarily have a good reputation,” Packer told the Tribune-Herald last year. “For the kids coming from there, my brothers and sisters at the school, I want to make it and give back, and show them that good things can come out of Puna, and you can come out of Keaau High.
“I want to give hope that nothing is impossible no matter where you come from. Great things come out of Keaau. I play for the state, the people I grew up with, my family, my community every day. I want to make them all proud.”
To say that the Cougars had a rough go in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation last year would be a major understatement, like it only drizzles in Hilo.
Keaau finished with a 1-7 record, suffered internal tension with a late-season coaching change, and then things got worse.
Tropical Storm Iselle gave a lot of the players a daily headache with the prolonged loss of electricity. A lot of them were without life’s basics: a clean shirt on their back, food on the table, a comfortable roof over their head.
Quesada, who lives in Hawaiian Paradise Park, pointed out it was more than a nice gesture when Cougars who live in Mountain View invited teammates to wash clothes at their house.
“You feel part of the family. We’re all helping each other, give each other a hand,” he said. “It made us much closer than we are. It helped us become one as a team.”
Then football hit the Cougars with a double whammy. Keaau graduated 27 seniors, the most of any team in the league. Also two playmakers, receiver Cohlby Espaniola and linebacker Kiliona Pomroy, transferred to Hilo.
Taking a cue from Packer’s “nothing is impossible no matter where you come from, and great things come out of Keaau,” life motto, Quesada accepts any challenge and punts it down the field.
Quesada will start at running back, and also play safety, kick, and punt. He’ll be pretty much all over the field, taking kickoff and punt returns as well.
“My goal is I want us to play better than last year,” he said. “I want to lead the team to more victories. I’m tired of people thinking Keaau is such an easy team.
“If we want to get somewhere, it’ll take hard work and dedication and talking to each other, and staying positive with each other.”
The Cougars lost their entire starting offensive and defense lines – the critical point of attack where yards are either gained or lost. Their well of talent was depleted, too.
Of the 15 players who received All-BIIF recognition (first team or honorable mention) last season, only three return: Quesada and Richard Hatori-Kanakaole, both honorable mention at running back, and Tihoti Tadeo, first-team defensive line.
It’s quite likely the Cougars will take their lumps in what’s a massive rebuilding year. Graduation makes class talent cyclical. It just so happens that a lot talent left at the same time.
“My role is to help others,” Quesada said. “We’re only as good as our weakest link.”
That’s what coach Kalei Young likes about Quesada, Hatori-Kanakaole and linebacker Koapaka Vierra. He calls the trio “All-Americans” in attitude for encouraging others, keeping spirits positive, and making sure team unity stands tallest.
“Those three are humble, and I call them All-Americans because of how they go about their way,” Young said.
Quesada hopes to play for a junior college in Arizona, and wants to become a firefighter. His parents are Ronald, who works for Puna Geothermal, and Raylyn Quesada, who works at Keaau elementary.
Size was never a best friend. Quesada stood just 5 feet 5 and weighed 135 pounds last year, during his first season on the varsity. He always figured he would be small.
But over the summer, Quesada added two inches, and 25 pounds of muscle through weight lifting in the summer. The growth spurt, and more so, the extra bulk gave him a new perspective on things.
“I feel good about it. It helped boost my confidence,” he said. “I always thought I’d be really small.”
He and Hatori-Kanakaole became first-year starters last year, and are roughly the same size. They often push and challenge each other. They’re both soccer players for the Cougars.
“We always have to be better than each other. We usually tie sports-wise,” said Quesada, who then said something that would make Packer proud. “Richard isn’t my best friend on the team. I have no one best friend. We’re all really close.”