By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The cupboard isn’t empty, but Kealakehe, an annual canoe paddling title contender, doesn’t exactly have same the firepower that produced a pair of Big Island Interscholastic Federation championships last season.
“We’ll be basically rebuilding this year,” coach Mike Atwood said. “The boys lost five of the six paddlers. We lost the skill seats, the stroker and steersman. For the girls, we’re pretty solid with three back and a little better position than the boys.”
Isaiah Hauanio, a senior, is the lone returning starter for the Kealakehe boys, the defending BIIF champion. Seniors Kat LeCoque and Gabby Lovell and junior steersman Makamae Quinn are returning starters for the girls, the school’s other defending BIIF champion.
Hawaii Prep spoiled the Waveriders’ quest for a title sweep, winning the mixed championship. The Ka Makani were also depleted by graduation, returning only seniors Nua Potts and Emily Johnson from that title crew.
But as Atwood pointed out, rebuilding is never a long project, especially with the Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association serving as a feeder program.
He’s the athletic director for Kai Opua, which finished fourth in the Division AAAA (21-40 events) at the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state championships over the summer.
Kai Opua’s girls and boys 16 and under crews each placed fourth. The 15 and under girls were also fourth and the boys in that division were seventh. Most of those paddlers are young Waveriders, soon to stockpile the cupboard again.
That’s a feeder system that keeps on giving. Also during the BIIF season, the order of races is junior varsity girls and boys, then varsity girls and boys, nonscoring varsity, JV mixed and then varsity mixed. All that paddling together can only build muscles and better times.
“What really helps us out across the board is the club and school paddling work both ways,” Atwood said. “We benefit from the clubs, and the clubs benefit from the schools. The clubs start in March and paddle until the last part of October. There are only a couple of months off. That definitely helps us as far as experience.”
Of course, it’s pretty much the same for everybody — all the BIIF schools and the Interscholastic League of Honolulu powerhouses, which have won 24 out of 33 Hawaii High School Athletic Association state titles, including all 11 girls championships.
However, it’s not exactly a level playing field, at least when compared to the ILH, which paddles 3, 4 or 5 miles at its races. In the BIIF, each regatta is a half-mile. The only exception is the season opener, which is 3 miles.
Last season, the HHSAA state championships were held at Hilo Bay and the BIIF didn’t fare well at all on its home water. Honokaa was seventh and Kealakehe eighth in the girls finals. All of the home crews sat on the sand for the boys and mixed finals.
At least the BIIF season figures to be competitive and filled with parity, likely extending the league’s streak to 12 years with no school sweeping all three titles.
Parker will definitely make noise. The Bulls finished third in the mixed race at the BIIF championships last season. They return all their starters — stroker Aidan Wharton, Charlie Charbonneau, Cody Brown, Mariko Langevin, Emily Whitfield and steersman Sarah Wiley.
“HPA, Parker, Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino (fourth at BIIFs in boys and mixed, making states) will challenge,” Atwood said. “When we practice, we get to see Hualalai a little bit, the Honokaa girls will be a good team again, and Konawaena is always somebody that can surprise you. And you can’t overlook anybody on the eastside. We’ll see everyone on Jan. 5 when we all get together (for an all-schools regatta).”
Meanwhile, Atwood keeps it simple, stressing timing and technique — the two main ingredients to make a canoe glide smoothly and quickly over the water.
“What we teach are the basics. That’s pretty much it,” he said. “If all six people do the same thing in a canoe, it should go pretty fast. Every school has to work out the little inconsistencies, no matter how long you paddle. It’s the same thing for us.”
LeCoque and Lovell are three-year senior starters and Quinn has paddling in her blood, providing the Waveriders a strong nucleus.
“Gabby has been in championship races and doesn’t let that throw her off,” Atwood said. “Kat has a good attitude and is somebody who listens and works really hard. She’s not as naturally strong as the other girls, but she has good ability to blend with the others.
“Maka has been paddling as a starter since she was a freshman. She comes from a paddling family and it runs in her genes. Her sister, Jenna, paddled for Kamehameha-Kapalama a few years ago and they won the girls and mixed state titles. Maka knows what it is like to compete and paddle well.”
Atwood was also impressed with a pair of rookie paddlers. Akoni DeMello is steering for the JV boys and Mahina Hanakeawe is doing the same for the JV girls.
“Akoni is picking up things really fast. Mahina is learning for the first time and doing really well. They’re both freshmen. We’ve got pretty good JV kids on both sides,” said Atwood, already restocking his cupboard.
What: 3-mile distance race, East and West schools
Where: Hilo Bay, 9 a.m.; Kailua Pier, 10 a.m.
Defending BIIF champs: Kealakehe boys and girls; Hawaii Prep mixed