By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEAAU — With four events on his plate, Talon Ota called it an easy week. But the Keaau senior was still hard at work trying to catch his breath after the final one.
Ota had just anchored the Cougars’ 1,600-meter relay team to victory Saturday, and tucked away in the corner of the Cougars’ stadium, he probably wouldn’t have minded another minute or two before playing 20 questions.
But much like his Big Island Interscholastic Federation meet, which included two other first-place finishes and a runner-up, Ota summoned the strength.
“Positive thoughts,” he said of his final push on his leg of the 400. “Don’t think negative.”
There have been no shortage of good vibes for the Keaau track program of late.
The boys team not only delivered the school with its first BIIF title last season, but they also started something of a trend. The Cougars cheerleaders won a league title in the fall and boys paddling followed suit in the winter.
Track and field coach Vicky Chai-Guerpo sees a link.
“(Boys track) set a precedent,” she said. “I think that the team last year set an example that it is possible.”
That’s one of the reasons she’s got a robust roster of 82, compared to only 15 when she took over in 2000, when Keaau didn’t have a stadium.
The Cougars will need those numbers to help offset the loss of a senior-laded roster from last season.
“I loved my team last year,” she said, “but this team is very easy to coach, and they want to do well.”
So while many BIIF coaches forecast a wide-open boys field in the team title race, it’s undeniably a different landscape for Keaau. Not to mention more pressure on Ota.
“It’s was pretty special to win that first BIIF banner. It’s something I won’t ever forget,” he said. “A lot more pressure. Last year, we had a lot of talent. A lot of people will have to push it if we want that BIIF banner again.”
Not that he’s a one-man show.
Sophomore Jeffrey Ferrell won his first 800 in three regular-season meets Saturday, Jonathan Segovia (high jump), Matthew Winters (400) and Carlos Valdez (1,500) took runners-up, and Kamanu Bumanglag and Dustin Liva were second and third, respectively, in the the discus.
But Ota leads the way.
“There’s not much he can’t do,” Chai-Guerpo said.
In addition to being a contender in the long jump and triple jumps, Ota, who also plays soccer and football but says he prefers the competitiveness of track, figures to compete in both relays as well as the 100 and 400 at BIIFs in early May at Hawaii Prep.
Ota won the long jump and 400 on Saturday, but feels like he’s making his biggest improvement in the triple jump. He finished second behind Kamehameha’s Rihei Grothmann at Keaau in the discipline, but with a leap of 40 feet, 6.75 inches on April 6 at Konawaena, Ota reached the best distance of any island athlete this season.
Waiakea’s Michael Morikawa has the league’s best distance in the long jump this year at 20-10.25. Ota won with a 19-9.25 on Saturday.
“I only tried (triple jump) once last year, but I’m getting better at it than the long jump right now,” Ota said.
Grothmann was the only triple winner individually, adding victories in a pair of events where he’s really starting to make his mark: the hurdles.
Kamehameha coach Manly Kanoa calls the 300 a “horrible distance” that scares away a lot of kids.
“It’s tough to think about running fast and getting over that many hurdle at the same time,” Kanoa said.
Not anymore for Grothmann, a junior.
“It took us awhile for us to get him to really attack it (the hurdles), but you can see that he’s grown a lot,” Kanoa said.
The junior’s taken five of six hurdling races the past three weeks, finishing second to Morikawa in the 300 on March 30 at Keaau. Grothmann’s times of 15.70 seconds in the 110 and 41.57 in the 300 each rank eighth-best in the state this year.
And Kanoa expects to see further improvement.
“By the time we do get to states, he will have cleaned up a lot of different things to get him just a little bit faster,” Kanoa said. “We expect him to really compete and bring something home.
“The work he does with the 300 hurdles translates to a lot of different events. Him working (the 300), it helps his 100 (dash), it helps his triple jump, it helps his 110 hurdles.”
On the girls side, Ka’u’s Kristina Padrigo and Konawaena’s Ua Ruedy each continued their stellar seasons with a pair of victories.
Padrigo edged Ruedy in the 100 and won the long jump before skipping off to prom. Ruedy took the 200 and claimed the 300 hurdles, though her time of 46.46 wasn’t as good as the state-best 45.59 she ran a week earlier.
In the 100 hurdles, Hawaii Prep’s Emma Taylor (15.93) squeaked by Kamehameha’s Casey Poe (15.98) in a race that featured the sixth- and seventh-fastest times in Hawaii in 2013.
Poe teamed up with Meagan Kualii, Mikela Cabel and Harper Hottendorf to capture the 400 relay. The Lady Warriors rank sixth in the state in what is one of their coach’s favorite events.
“A lot of speed, but it’s teamwork, too,” Kanoa said. “And you don’t really get a lot teamwork in track and field.”