By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
It was Pahoa’s turn to take the biggest slices of glory in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation canoe paddling season that has established one constant: the family-oriented Dagger girls know how to win.
They won the half-mile race by a comfortable margin on Saturday at Hilo Bay, after taking the long-distance event last week, building good momentum for next year’s all-schools showdown on Jan. 5.
Pahoa’s mixed crew added to the victory haul, pulling hard to clock in at 4 minutes and 23.87 seconds to Hilo’s 4:24.63 in the last race of a weather-perfect day.
The best competition was the boys battle between the two Warriors — public-school Waiakea and private-school Kamehameha. In an eye-blink, Waiakea finished first in 4:03.33 to Kamehameha’s 4:03.95.
The Pahoa boys disqualified themselves from the start. Their canoe was over the line when the green flag was waved. Their DQ time was 4:07:17, something to work on during the two off weeks.
Jensen Martins, a senior, was part of the mixed crew that won and the boys six-pack that got disqualified. He paddles for Keaukaha during the Moku O Hawaii season, and has been in the sport for six years.
He loves canoe paddling and everything that goes with it. He even enjoys practice. But there’s one thing missing: he’s never been to states, for either high school or the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state championships.
“The Pahoa boys have not been to states in a long time,” he said. “My goal is to try to make it to states. I’d really like to go to states and try our best there. Our whole Pahoa team is trying hard to get there.
“Paddling is the only sport I do. I love being in the water and paddling is my thing. I love being with the people I hang around in school with. We’re all a family and work together.”
Martins also appreciates the family atmosphere co-coaches Nate Kaluhiwa and Shannon Takabayashi provide, especially at practice.
“They’re two wonderful coaches and they’re the best coaches in my eyes,” he said. “They treat us well and want us to do good. They’re like parents for us. They’re really great coaches and I love coming to practice because of those two coaches. They make it real fun, and we all get along with each other.”
The Pahoa coaches also go the extra mile. They drive the Daggers, who have a roster of 30, to every practice and race. That’s 20 miles one way, plus battling bottleneck traffic on the drive back home.
“Steve Hirakami, the principal at HAAS (Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, charter school), donated two vans,” Takabayashi said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a paddling team. A lot of kids don’t have transportation. That’s really important.”
The Pahoa family includes outside relatives. There are five paddlers from HAAS and three from Kua O Kala, a Hawaiian public charter school located next to the Ahalanui warm pond.
On the girls crew, Jessica Seagraves and steersman Netai Jadu are from HAAS. Jadu’s sister, Ciena, is also from HAAS. Keeley Peleiholani is from Kua O Kala.
The old proverb — it’s not how you start, but how you finish — held true for the boys race.
“In the beginning, we started slow,” Waiakea senior Jaimy Saragio said. “But we picked it up, tried to hustle and passed Kamehameha at the end. It felt really good.”
Like Martins, Saragio is trying to make the most of his senior year. He played football and wants to try out for the track and field team, and baseball, too. Saragio is also making up for lost time, having not paddled for nearly two years.
He was born in Colorado and moved around because his dad is in the military. Saragio went to Leilehua on Oahu as a freshman and got into paddling. He split his sophomore year on Molokai and Florida, at Estero High where he stayed for his junior year.
“I lived inland in Florida,” he said. “I missed paddling. I love being in the ocean and wanted to paddle again.”
The Warriors feature a senior-laden crew, but only Kialoa Mossman, Randan Pai and Kaikane Kirkland-Obra are returning starters. Kirkland-Obra, the steersman, is a grizzled veteran, paddling for the last six years.
Kirkland-Obra, who’s been to states at HCRA, kept his perspective when asked about the narrow win. He looked big picture, knowing the regular-season regattas are basically tuneups; the top three at the BIIF championships earn state berths.
“It was all right. It was a good learning experience for the newcomers (Brett Harrington, Kameron Pai and Saragio),” Kirkland-Obra said. “It was all about the workout and good fun and meeting new people.
“My goal is to make states and do good at states. It’s my senior year and I’m trying to push for the best.”
The Daggers blasted off with a quick tempo, made a clean turn, and enjoyed the ride home to another first-place finish.
“It felt pretty good. We stayed positive the whole way down,” said Netai Jadu, a sophomore steersman. “Coming out of the turn everyone else was behind us. I knew we had it. I told the girls, ‘Relax.’ We had it.
“We were all on the junior varsity last season. Everybody pulls hard. We’ve got a good team bond.”
The Daggers won in a comfortable 4:39.99, the biggest margin of victory for the three varsity races and another sign of dominance.
Most of the Pahoa girls have been paddling together for the last three years for Keaukaha during the Moku O Hawaii season. The Keaukaha girls 15 crew won the Aunty Maile title, and placed seventh at the HCRA state regatta.
The back-to-back BIIF wins have been a nice confidence boost for the Daggers, who look forward to the all-schools meet, a good measuring stick.
“We talk about what we can do,” Seagraves said. “We communicate a lot with each other. Our confidence is super high. We’ve been with each other so long and that’s invaluable. Our team bond is super important and that keeps us together.”
Pahoa’s other Jessica, Agtarap, had a long day. She was in both winning crews. Like her fellow Daggers, the junior paddles for Keaukaha during the Moku O Hawaii season, and shares the same love of team chemistry.
“The mixed race was really tough,” Agtarap said. “We don’t practice with that crew too much. We got thrown in together. We really wanted it. It’s like a family working together for us.”
BIIF canoe paddling
1. Pahoa (Savannah DePonte, Jessica Agtarap, Jessica Seagraves, Keeley “Tita” Peleiholani, Elizabeth “Loke” Milare, Netai Jadu), 4:39.99; 2. Waiakea, 4:57.31; 3. Hilo, 4:58.96; 4. Keaau, 5:09.37; 5. Kamehameha, 5:29.51.
1. Waiakea (Kialoa Mossman, Brett Harrington, Jaimy Saragio, Randan Pai, Kameron Pai, Kaikane Kirkland-Obra), 4:03.33; 2. Kamehameha, 4:03.95; 3. Hilo, 4:09.65; 4. Keaau, 4:11.54. Pahoa, DQ.
1. Pahoa (Savannah DePonte, Jessica Agtarap, Keeley “Tita” Peleiholani, Jensen Martins, Travis Carvalho, Ikaika Liwai), 4:23.87; 2. Hilo, 4:24.63; 3. Keaau, 4:25.36; 4. Waiakea, 4:25.78; 5. Kamehameha, 4:54.95.
1. Kamehameha, 2:16.44; 2. Hilo, 2:24.02.
1. Keaau, 1:55.11; 2. Kamehameha, 1:55.65; 3. Waiakea, 2:00.94; 4. Pahoa, 2:04.12.
1. Kamehameha, 1:58.08; 2. Pahoa, 2:04.86; 3. Hilo, 2:08.08.
1. Keaau, 2:06.68; 2. Waiakea, 2:09.73; 3. Kamehameha, 2:11.77; Hilo, 2:26.73. Pahoa DQ.