By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kealakehe senior Winton Palik is Kosraean. He’s 5 feet, 6 inches, 260 pounds, and built like a fire hydrant, according to football coach Sam Papalii. The stout defensive lineman is also a big-time role model.
In fact, Papalii, who works at the school, serves as Palik’s fan club president, often fielding questions from students, “How’s Winton doing, coach?”
Before that answer on Palik’s gridiron play, let’s have a quick geography lesson.
Kosrae is an island in the Federated States of Micronesia, one of four states in the independent sovereign island chain. The three other states are Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei.
Palik is not the only Waverider with proud Kosraean blood. There’s standout senior linebacker Keanu Tilfas, who also plays running back; Winton’s first cousin Kawika Palik, a senior lineman; Howard Cosare, a sophomore lineman; and senior safety/running back Daniel Weber, who’s half Kosraean and half Caucasian.
“We’ve got a big Micronesian group on campus and they look up to those guys,” Papalii said. “The kids I work with are always talking about Winton and Keanu. They both played on the junior varsity in 2011 and later came up to the varsity that year.
“They played important minutes on our team that lost to Leilehua (35-24 in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association first-round game) that year. We knew both would be important and they started on last year’s BIIF championship team, Winton at D-tackle and Keanu at linebacker.
“Keanu is one of our leaders. He’s played running back and on every special team. He never leaves the football field. He hits so hard and is on the mend every week. That’s why he can’t play too much on offense. When he does come in on offense, he’ll block you and he’s very physical, just like Winton.”
Palik and Tilfas also were key Waveriders on last season’s BIIF championship team that fell to Farrington 34-25 in the first round at states.
Palik is now part of the Waverider Big Four, along with Feke Sopoaga-Kioa (6-2, 311), Tavita “Tui” Eli (6-4, 285) and Travis Lualemaga (6-1, 317), a three-time All-BIIF first-team D-line pick. They energize practice when they battle in one-on-one drills.
Papalii quickly pointed out that the shorter and lighter Palik gives no ground. The fire hydrant description fits Palik well, the seventh-year coach noted, because he’s embedded in the ground.
“My students are always asking, ‘How’s Keanu? How’s Winton doing?’ Everybody looks up to them,” Papalii said. “Winton is a powerful kid. Keanu is a popular kid on campus. He was homecoming king. They know they’ve got to be real good role models for the other Kosraeans on campus.”
Papalii had a tough time stifling a laugh when describing their personalities, especially Tilfas, apparently blessed with extra funny bones.
“Keanu is a happy-go-lucky kid. He’s funny and he’s a clown, cracking jokes,” Papalii said. “But get him on the field and he’s serious about hitting. He’ll crack you, even in practice. He’ll hit you hard. But off the field, he’s a practical joker. He’s an easy-to-like type of guy.
“Winton can be funny, but he’s more reserved. All the Micronesians they all talk about Winton because they’re the same height, but he’s 260 pounds. We call him the ‘Fire Hydrant’ because he’s hard to move, even for big linemen like Feke and Tui. Winton is already low to the ground, so he’s hard to move unless he stands high.”
Last season, Palik received All-BIIF honorable mention on the defensive line, which meant one coach voted for him on a team that had 22 seniors, including 17 moving on to college ball.
Papalii also wanted to give a shout-out to Lualemaga, his three-time All-BIIF first team pick.
“Travis is another guy who could be a Division I nose guard in college,” he said. “He’s as physical as they come. When he plays low, keeps his hands inside, he’s unblockable.
“His personality is the same as the other guys. He’s a good kid, a tough kid. The biggest thing is he’s been an All-BIIF first-team player for three years. He has the talent and could be fantastic in college.”
Kealakehe (2-3 overall, 2-2 BIIF) visits Hilo (5-1, 4-0) at 6:30 p.m. today at Wong Stadium.
Papalii and Hilo coach Dave Baldwin didn’t gave away state secrets or whisper one brief bit about their game plans.
After Hilo scored 29 unanswered points to pound Kamehameha 36-10 last Friday, Baldwin spoke of his respect for the Waveriders, the three-time BIIF Division I defending champions.
“In my opinion, Kealakehe still holds the Division I title,” he told the Tribune-Herald. “They are the reigning Division I champs and until such time that it changes, I have the utmost respect for them.
“I think our kids are excited, but humbled. We’re trying to achieve and do something we have not done yet. (Hilo’s last BIIF title was in 2003, under former coach Albert Kawelu.) I pay no attention to what other teams have achieved. For us, it’s about what we control.”
It’s highly unlikely that will be put on Kealakehe’s bulletin board. Instead, the Waveriders will pin up Hilo running back Tristin Spikes’ stats. He shredded Kamehameha’s defense for 131 yards on 24 carries.
The Vikings went crazy on the ground against the Warriors. They outrushed Kamehameha 339 to 13 yards, a rather eye-opening stat. Donavan Kelley added to the damage with 83 rushing yards.
“Hilo’s a good team. They’re having a hell of a year. They’ve done a great job on offense and defense,” Papalii said. “No. 4 (Spikes) is a good runner and their quarterback, No. 11 (Kelley), is a good runner and he’s got skills.
“Our first priority is to stop the run. That’s the philosophy of any good defense, and you have to be sound against the pass. We’ve been susceptible to the pass, but we’re still trying to figure it out. We’ve got Keoni Yates back, and we can put him at safety or cornerback. We’re hoping to find the right formula and we’re getting closer.”
Keaau (0-4, 0-4) at HPA (4-2, 2-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday
For the Ka Makani, it’s an important game against the Cougars, who have yet to break the team total 100-yard rushing barrier, because the seeding picture comes into play.
Two of HPA’s last three games are against winless teams: Keaau this week and Honokaa in the last week of the regular season. Kamehameha is in the same boat: Honokaa this week and Keaau in the last week of the regular season.
Next week, HPA visits Kamehameha for the likely No. 2 seed in the four-team BIIF Division II playoffs. Unless all the wheels falls off, Kona should sew up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage.
But before HPA can think too far ahead, a more immediate issue is at hand: ball security. The Cougars and Ka Makani both lost last week because they coughed up the ball more than once. It’s probably why winning the turnover battle is atop everyone’s checklist.