By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kali‘i Kunitomo knows that sunshine lasts only so long on a collegiate football career, so he’s soaking up every enjoyable minute.
The 2008 Konawaena graduate is one of the top weapons at Chapman University, a Division III school in sun-soaked Orange, Calif., and in its debut season in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound wide receiver has a team-leading 19 receptions for 253 yards and one touchdown, numbers that pale in comparison to last season’s production: 39 catches for 611 yards and seven TDs, two off the school record.
The Panthers (3-1, 2-0) host the Occidental Tigers (1-3, 1-1) on Saturday, hoping to maintain their high standing after a freefall last year knee-capped a similar hot start into a familiar 4-5 disappointment.
“We started 4-1 last year and then went downhill,” he said. “We want to keep it going. We have a lot of talent on the team, and this is our chance to win the conference. We’ve got weapons all over the field.
“The thing about this team, and this doesn’t happen all the time, is we’re a really close team. We’re like a family and hang out every weekend and go out to dinner and take care of each other. It’s more than just football.”
It’s the same way with his off-campus life. He shares an apartment with 2009 Hawaii Prep graduate Mika Nickel, and fellow ’08 Kona grad Darryl Milana, who was also his roommate at Orange Coast College, about 15 minutes away from Chapman.
Kunitomo said Nickel will try out for the baseball team, which finished 37-13 and runner-up for the Division III national championship, and Milana will join the Panthers basketball squad, which posted an 18-7 record last season.
During their Big Island Interscholastic Federation glory days, Kunitomo and Milana helped the Wildcats to the school’s last boys basketball league title in 2008. (Kona’s girls have grabbed the last four BIIF crowns, including states the past two years.)
Kunitomo’s first love is the sport of dribbling, passing and shooting the ball. He tried out for basketball his first year at OCC. But he pulled the plug, preferring to catch the ball and score touchdowns.
“I made it past cuts, but I wasn’t feeling it,” he said. “I went to OCC for three years and took that first year off (for sports). In the spring, I tried out for the football team.”
Kunitomo called his two-year gridiron tenure at OCC “a quiet career.”
That’s because the thrill of scoring touchdowns overwhelms the sound and agony of being stuck on the bench due to injuries. As a freshman, he fractured an ankle. The next season he sprained his MCL in his knee.
“I played but not really,” he said. “I didn’t have a good season, not anything special at OCC.”
‘Get off the rock’
After graduating from Konawaena, he was headed to Kapiolani Community College on Oahu. But at the last minute he decided to join Milana at OCC, a good 2,500 miles away from comfortable Hawaii.
“It was the best move for me to get off the rock,” Kunitomo said. “I’m 22 years old now and I’ve matured a lot over the years, especially moving here by myself. I grew up as a person, living on my own.”
The life lesson he got from his dad — Eric, a retired firefighter, a profession Kunitomo hopes to follow — was the routine of everyday chores, from household to school work. He’s carrying a 3.0 grade point average.
“My dad made me do all that kind of stuff when I was a kid. He was doing it for a reason and it paid off,” he said. “When I moved to college, it wasn’t a big shock when I was on my own. You have to know when to buckle down, make sure school work is done first before you have fun.
“One thing I’ve learned being in college is it’s about time management, getting your priorities straight. College is not like high school. The teachers won’t wait for you and baby you. I definitely got that from my dad. He stressed that all through high school.”
Kunitomo reflects on his dad getting on his case and offers a hearty laugh. He’s also grading high in perspective, especially in the lesson of father knows best.
“As a kid, you never really listen. Then you think you should have listened to him,” he said. “As a kid you think it doesn’t matter. But it all makes sense now. My dad tried to ingrain that into my brain when I was younger.”
His dad, stepmom Kim and half-sisters Kili, a Konawaena sophomore, and Ka‘i, a fifth-grader, left Sunday after spending a week visiting and getting in Chapman’s 24-7 homecoming win over Pomona-Pitzer last Saturday.
Kunitomo put on a pretty good show. He hauled in four catches for 47 yards, including a long of 26 yards. But alas, no touchdowns. The other wideout, Robin Harris, snagged a pair for the Panthers, who run a spread offense.
His mom Sherri, who lives on Oahu, will fly in Friday for the Occidental game. His stepdad, Charles Markle, a retired marshal who works at Disney’s Aulani Hotel, built a recruiting profile for Kunitomo.
The whole gang will be back in a few weeks for his senior game, set for Oct. 27 against La Verne, which finished 4-5 last season. By then, the Panthers should have a good grasp on the direction of their season.
Soak it up
Kunitomo has enjoyed the benefits of being on the mainland, the inherent growth of independence, plus a full menu of things to do.
“We live five minutes away from Disneyland, so that’s nice,” he said. “Back home you’re stuck on an island. Here you jump in a car, and you can drive to Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles. You also build a network of knowing people. That’s what today’s world is all about, people who you know.
“There are so much opportunities for fun. Being out here, there are so many options to do stuff. Back home, you get in trouble because there’s not much to do.”
Chapman’s baseball program is serious business. Under coach Tom Tereschuk, who won the national title in his first year in 2003, the Panthers have reached the postseason nine times. They’ve been pretty good for a very long time — Chapman football, not so much.
The Panthers have gone 4-5 the last three years. Their last winning season was 5-4 in 2008, a glamorous year for Kunitomo; Kona won BIIF titles in basketball and football.
“When I came out to Chapman it was a new beginning after my injuries at OCC,” he said. “It’s my senior year and I’m trying to go out with a bang and have fun. I want to try to do something big this year and leave a mark.
“I just want to win. The past few years we were 4-5. I want that winning record and it’s our first time in the conference and we want to do something. I’m not a vocal person. I make sure I do my job. That way everyone else sees that you have to hold your role for the team to function. It’s just go out and work hard every day.”
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