By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Keaau boys made school history at the last Big Island Interscholastic Federation canoe paddling regatta, winning for the first time, but it’s the next race that really counts.
The Cougars have never won a BIIF championship for either the boys, girls or mixed events. They have never qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships either.
The idiom “killing two birds with one stone” was invented with the Cougars in mind.
“The boys are peaking right now,” Keaau co-coach Grant Kaaua said. “The mixed is starting to gel and is coming on strong.
“The win last week showed us where we stand. It was a reality check, how good these boys can be. But we won’t be able to surprise anyone anymore. Our goal is definitely to win the BIIF championship.”
Lopaka Swope, Bobby Harrington III, Billson Hisaiah, Travis Basford, Lopaka Cariaga, Byron Cachola and Adam Ventura got credit for Keaau’s first BIIF victory since paddling started in 2001; the HHSAA adopted paddling the next year.
“Our key this year has been our unity and our drive,” Kaaua said. “It’s also the whole cultural respect the kids have for the canoe. We tell them if they take care of the canoe and paddles. The canoe and paddles will take care of them.”
The BIIF will have four lanes at the state championships, like last season when Hilo Bay played host.
Honokaa doesn’t have much depth, but manages just fine. In fact, last week the Dragons made a good run at the regatta winners, finishing second for the boys and mixed.
“We’re doing all right. We can keep up with the other schools,” coach Manny Veincent said. “We’ve got six boys and six girls. Half of them have got to get into the mixed. We focus on strictly conditioning. We don’t have enough time, with the racing period so short, to go into technique and stuff like that.”
So the Dragons practice and practice, building their endurance for the half-mile races. There are heats before the finals, leaving little time for paddlers to catch their breath. But the hard work pays off.
Last year, the girls qualified for states with a runner-up finish at the BIIF championships. Breanne Samio led the way as the stroker. The senior is pulling double duty, setting the tempo for the mixed crew, too.
“Our mixed crew is the strongest,” Veincent said. “We have pretty good girls upfront and count on them to push it through. You don’t see it too much, a No. 1 female stroker going against No. 1 male strokers.”
Samio paddles for Veincent’s Kawaihae Canoe Club during the Moku O Hawaii season. She understands the job requirements of the lead stroker. Besides, Veincent pointed out his boys are rookies.
“The boys are all greenhorns, first-year paddlers,” he said. “They have no idea how to set a pretty good pace. She can set a pretty good pace. That’s why I go with her.
“We start off pretty good and hang on at the end. We’re pretty tired doing all those races.”
Veincent pegged Parker as the favorite because of its deep roster. The Bulls have 27 paddlers, including six seniors and nine freshmen, carrying both experience and reinforcements for the future.
At last week’s regatta, the Bulls won the girls and placed third in the boys races. The mixed crew went to states last season, the first trip since 2008 when the boys qualified.
No school has swept at the BIIF championships, largely because it’s not easy to make history.
“It’s anybody’s game right now,” Hilo coach Aunty Maile Mauhili said. “It’s always a seesaw with two heats. In one heat you can be up and the other heat you could be down. Everybody is getting better. Most of the paddlers in high school paddle during the summer, too.”