By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Keaau boys came well-prepared to make school history, and the Pahoa girls won without their normal lineup, before windy conditions pulled the plug on the Big Island Interscholastic Federation canoe paddling championships on Saturday.
Due to safety concerns with high winds increasing the likelihood of canoes flipping, the varsity mixed was scratched, along with four other races, at Hilo Bay where conditions were more suitable for a windsurfing contest.
The decision for the five races — junior varsity mixed heat 2, varsity mixed heats 1 and 2, JV mixed final and varsity mixed final, in that order — has yet to be determined. There’s an open day next Saturday.
However, there are issues to completing the BIIF championships. For one, Konawaena has scheduled SAT tests for its students that day.
The top four finishers earned berths to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships, which will be held the following week on Friday, Feb. 1, at Keehi Lagoon on Oahu.
The good news is the BIIF batted 2 for 3, getting in the boys and girls finals. Keaau, Kona, Honokaa and Parker are going to states for the boys, and Pahoa, Parker, Kona, and Kealakehe for the girls.
Much later in the day the winds picked up, forcing the last five of the 16 races to be scratched. The only people enjoying the onshore gusts were the kite surfers, who turned Hilo Bay into their personal playground.
“I’ve never seen the weather this bad at the BIIF championships,” said Pahoa co-coach Nate Kaluhiwa, on the job for 11 years. “Lining up was really hard. It was blowing so much you had to be way behind the starting line. The wind was a factor. I had a hard time holding the boat.”
The varsity half-mile races were an adventure for everyone because the onshore wind was blowing hard and right into the canoe’s ama (outrigger). At least on the way back, after the turn, the ama provided a little stability.
Still, the conditions presented a challenge, even for BIIF champions.
“I’m stoked and happy,” Pahoa senior Tita Hall-Peleiholani. “It was hard keeping our balance and keeping the canoe straight. At the start, I thought we were going to huli (flip), but we leaned to the left.”
There was no fierce battle for fourth place. In the boys final, Keaau ended the suspense early with a good start and a better finish, sailing home in 4 minutes, 44.95 seconds to Konawaena’s 4:51.88.
All the drama was reserved for the girls race.
The Daggers were missing two power seats, Jessica Agtarap and Jessica Seagraves. Ciena Jadu and Jainine Abraham, in her first varsity start, filled in just fine. They meshed with stroker Savannah DePonte, Loke Milare, steersman Netai Jadu and Hall-Peleiholani, and the new-look crew didn’t miss a beat.
But Pahoa had to work for its BIIF title. Parker, which won the two all-schools regattas at Hilo Bay and Kailua Pier, proved to be a formidable foe. The Bulls saw red and were charging home.
Then about 20 yards from the finish line, the Daggers made a timely late surge and passed them, clocking a 5:27.70 to Parker’s 5:29.00.
“We lost two girls to injuries. Luckily, we had backups and they trained pretty hard,” Pahoa co-coach Shannon Takabayashi said. “Parker all season long has been our competition. It’s always been up and up with Parker. We beat them by two seconds. It was a close race. The girls really wanted it. We did a lot of resistance work during practice. That really helped with the weather.”
Said Kaluhiwa: “We had good practices. Everyone came to practice. For us, practice counts and practice makes perfect.”
As the stroker, DePonte had the best seat in the house. She saw Parker in front, but stuck to her pace and her teammates synchronized their strokes. Teamwork was vital and Pahoa won.
“At first I thought they won. It looked like they stopped, but we kept pushing our hardest,” DePonte said. “It feels pretty good. We did good despite everything. Our crew changed a lot and we lost a lot of power. But I’m happy we made it. The best part is knowing we worked together and stayed positive.”
The Cougars have previously qualified for states two other times, the last in 2007 when Hilo Bay hosted the HHSAA regatta. But bringing home the first BIIF championship carries far more significance.
They finished eighth last year at BIIFs. There are only eight lanes. Keaau has always been a paddling underdog, at least until this season.
Seniors Billson Hisaiah, Robert Harrington III, Lopaka Swope and Travis Basford, junior Adam Ventura, and sophomore steersman Byron Cachola turned the Cougars into big-time competitors. The crew was second at the Hilo Bay all-schools regatta and took first at Kailua Pier, hard evidence that they’re for real.
“We worked hard and definitely earned this. We worked harder than we ever had before,” Basford said. “The crew has a big heart and we bond well and train as one person. We progress as a unit and that’s a big part of us winning. We’ve also got the best coaches (Grant Kaaua and Anna Golden Kaaua).”
Like the Pahoa girls, the Cougars practiced resistance training, putting those noodle floats on the canoe. The extra muscle helped the crew power the canoe through choppy waters. The victory, though, was far from a cakewalk.
“It was definitely tough at the start. I thought we were going to huli 30 yards from the start,” Basford said. “But once we got past the turn on the way back it was no problem. It was just breaking the ice. We’re known for our turns and we’ve got the best steersman in Byron. He’s really calm, watches the waves, pays attention and has a feel for the water.”
Cachola made a good turn, and the Cougars trucked it home. “The turn was great. It was one of my best turns,” he said. “It was so perfect. We whipped around the flag and from there I knew we would take it. They were pulling so hard. They wanted to go to states, and they did it for states.”
The Cougs had a conservative game plan. They wanted a good start, but not one to push over the starting line for an automatic disqualification. They wanted to paddle hard, but not go overboard and huli their canoe.
“We didn’t want a DQ or huli. That was the main thing. Whatever they needed to do to stay in the race, they did,” Kaaua said. “We were not concerned about getting an extra five seconds at the turn. We wanted to paddle deep and strong into the wind. Our training prepared us for this. We came prepared.
“To win BIIFs is surreal. I thought we’d make states. That was our goal. I couldn’t be prouder of the boys. They bought into everything and took it to the next level. It’s a small group of kids, but I believe they can change the culture of Keaau High School. They can make everyone believe. They can share that belief that anything is possible.”
1. Pahoa (Savannah DePonte, Elizabeth Milare, Ciena Jadu, Tita Hall-Peleiholani, Jainine Abraham, Netai Jadu), 5:27.70; 2. Parker, 5:29.00; 3. Konawaena, 5:35.87; 4. Kealakehe, 5:43.02; 5. Honokaa, 5:57.41; 6. Waiakea, 6:10.11; 7. Kanu O Ka Aina, 6:12.63; 8. Keaau, 6:40.93.
1. Keaau (Billson Hisaiah, Robert Harrington III, Lopaka Swope, Travis Basford, Adam Ventura, Byron Cachola), 4:44.95; 2. Konawaena, 4:51.88; 3. Honokaa, 4:54.27; 4. Parker, 5:00.48; 5. Waiakea, 5:07.94; 6. Hawaii Prep, 5:23.39; 7. Hilo, 5:33.61
1. Kanu O Ka Aina, 2:25.35; 2. Parker, 2:25.39; 3. HPA, 2:30.65; 4. Kamehameha, 2:37.14; 5. Hualalai, 2:44.46.
1. Konawaena, 1:56.11; 2. Ke Kula Ehunuikaimalino, 1:58.06; 3. Waiakea, 2:00.79; 4. Kamehameha, 2:06.09; 5. Kealakehe, 2:09.09; 6. Pahoa, 2:15.26; 7. Hualalai, DQ.