By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
It’s all about the ohana with the Keaau canoe paddling teams.
The Cougars made the lion’s share of noise at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation season-opener, a 3-mile loop inside Hilo Bay, on Saturday, taking the boys and mixed divisions.
Pahoa, an experienced bunch of youngsters, captured the girls race in runaway fashion, beating the Cougars by more than five minutes — the only blight spot on Keaau’s golden day.
“We’re really all a family,” Keaau co-coach Anna Golden said. “They’ve worked really hard and the people in the canoe have good hearts. Their heart and teamwork brought them to where they needed to be.
“At the end of the day, we come together and say, ‘1-2-3, ohana.’ That’s what I feel makes them move forward, that mentality and love for one another to help each other. That helps them succeed.”
That family theme will be highlighted on Wednesday. After practice, Golden and co-coach Grant Kaaua will get married in a canoe on Hilo Bay’s water by Kamehameha coach Keahi Warfield. Kaaua has already checked the weather, which calls for slight trade winds.
During the Moku O Hawaii season, Warfield is the head coach for Keaukaha. Kaaua and Golden are also club coaches. She has paddled for Keaukaha for 17 years, and he has paddled for 25 years, starting out at Kawaihae under coach Uncle Manny Veincent, then the last eight years at Keaukaha.
Kaaua teaches a construction class at the school, and one project is building paddles. In his spare time, he is part of two bands, Mixjah, a reggae band, and Kuahiwis, an old-school Hawaiian-style band. Golden is a nurse at Hilo Medical Center.
Keaau’s boys captured first in 42 minutes, 29 seconds, with Kamehameha giving great chase and finishing a minute behind.
Last season, the Cougars finished eighth at the BIIF championships. The school not only has depth, competing in all three divisions this season, but also enthusiasm.
“It was a really good team effort,” Kaaua said. “But there’s another side besides paddling. The kids refurbish the canoes, make their own paddles, and those things play a big role. With the support of our athletic director (Iris McGuire), we’ve got supplies to make our own paddles. The class encompasses everything, especially the cultural side of things.”
It’s not easy being a paddler at Keaau. Transportation is an issue. Making practice can be a chore with paddlers coming from different neighborhoods.
“We have no transportation. The kids have to hustle for their own rides,” Kaaua said. “Some kids come from Volcano or Fern Acres or the Puna side. They’re getting out of the water when it’s dark and then they have to get home. I give the kids a lot of credit. They’re really committed.”
Kaaua pointed to senior Travis Basford as a committed team leader and called him a MVP of the crew, leading the way in the weight room and in projects, such as canoe repair and paddle construction.
Basford started paddling six years ago, providing a strong motor in the power No. 4 seat. He likes the team’s chemistry and potential. And in terms of self-growth, Basford, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, already has his career path mapped out.
“We’ve got good kids with big hearts. They’re all easy to talk to and are motivated,” he said. “Our coaches are teaching us to be self-disciplined and mentally strong. That’s what paddling is all about, pushing yourself beyond your limit, both physically and mentally.
“They stress academics as well. You can’t get into the canoe if you’re short on grades. I want to join the Coast Guard, then become a police officer and then be a U.S. Federal Marshall. My dad (Steve) was a police officer in Oakland, where there was a lot of law breaking. But there were good people, too, and I want to protect them, like my dad.”
Keaau has won BIIF regattas before, but has never claimed a spot in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
“The win felt really good because I thought another team would come in first,” senior stroker Lopaka Swope said. “We stuck with it from beginning until the end. We’ve improved a lot from last year. Our goal is to go to states.”
The Keaau girls almost made history last season, coming up seven seconds short. They placed fifth at the BIIF championships, one spot behind Pahoa, which secured the fourth and final berth to states.
Sophomore Amy McBride was the stroker on Keaau’s mixed winning crew, which won in 45:46.
“We showed a lot of improvement from the previous years,” she said. “We get along great and know we’re there for each other. It’s about staying strong. That’s what it comes down to.”
The Daggers have five starting juniors in Elizabeth Loke Milare, Jessica Seagraves, Keeley “Tita” Peleiholani, Ciena Jadu and Savannah DePonte, the stroker. Netai Jadu, Ciena’s sister, is a sophomore.
“It’s an experienced team and a good blend. They work well together,” said Shannon Wakabayashi, a co-coach along with Nate Kaluhiwa. “You have to have the mind to do it. It takes a lot of discipline and motivation. You’ve got to be hungry and they were hungry.”
Pahoa last won the girls BIIF title in 2010.
The race for the championship will be interesting. Kealakehe, the defending league champion, Honokaa, Hawaii Prep and Pahoa went to states last year. This season, there are three lanes reserved for the league.
The Daggers won by a good five minutes over the Cougars, 46:54 to 52:07, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. On the last turn, Pahoa and Keaau’s non-scoring crew bumped. Both canoes stayed upright and the Daggers soared to victory.
The ideal conditions fit on a postcard: flat water, blue sky and green coconut trees off in the distance. And the family-themed atmosphere surrounded everyone.
“It’s a good feeling and exciting to win,” DePonte said. “It’s a good way to start the season. That 3 miles was pretty animal. It felt way longer than that.
“We had to not think about being tired and push ourselves. We all worked as a team, stayed strong and worked as a family.”
BIIF canoe paddling
1. Pahoa (Elizabeth Loke Milare, Jessica Seagraves, Tita Peleiholani, Ciena Jadu, Netai Jadu, Savannah DePonte), 46:54; 2. Keaau, 52:07; Waiakea, 53:11.
1. Keaau, 47:01; 2. Kamehameha, 47:26; 3. Waiakea, 48:25.
1. Keaau (Lopaka Swope, Bobby Harrington III, Billson Hisaiah, Travis Basford, Lopaka Cariaga, Byron Cachola), 42:29; 2. Kamehameha, 43:29; 3. Waiakea, 44:16; 4. Pahoa, 45:01.
1. Kamehameha, 45:03; 2. Pahoa, 49:47.
1. Keaau (Amy McBride, Bobby Harrington III, Nisamarie Wooley-Pauline, Travis Basford, Janessa Villeza, Byron Cachola), 45:46; 2. Pahoa, 47:25; 3. Kamehameha, 48:08; 4. Waiakea, 52:02.
1. Kamehameha, 48:35; 2. Keaau, 49:50; 3. Pahoa, 50:37.