By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Shaun Kagawa is always polishing his athleticism, part of the package that makes him indispensable for the Kamehameha football team.
With his versatility and skill set, the 5-foot, 10-inch, 184-pound senior will be expected to plug a number of holes for the Warriors in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation season full of possibilities.
“He’s going to play all over the field, weakside linebacker, strong safety, cornerback,” second-year coach Dan Lyons said. “Basically, we’re going to try to match him up against the best athlete on the offensive side of the ball where he can make the biggest impact. Obviously, he’s a big impact player for us.
“He’ll also be on kickoffs and punt returns, play running back and receiver, and quarterback in our wildcat. We’ll put him in as many places as we can to get him the ball. What stands out about him, for one, is he’s a great athlete. He’s got a lot of physical ability.”
One fine day in February, Kagawa flashed his physical abilities at the Nike combine on Oahu; his 40-yard time of 4.53 seconds was third and his vertical of 35.7 inches was second. He posted the second highest rating, and his athleticism caught the attention of University of Hawaii coach Norm Chow, who offered a scholarship a few days later.
Kagawa’s other scholarship on the table is from Army. The Black Knights coach is Rich Ellerson, the former defensive coordinator to Bob Wagner, the recently retired Kamehameha athletic director, at UH.
He got that offer in May while he was on Oahu competing in tennis doubles and lost in the first round at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament. Kagawa, who holds a 2.9 grade-point average, will also participate in basketball and track.
Tennis was his first sport, learning the game’s intricacies, such as footwork and anticipation (also helpful for football) as a 4-year-old under his grandparents, Richard and Shirley Kagawa. The longtime tennis coaches not only raised him, but also used the game to impart life lessons.
“Tennis helped with my lateral movement and quickness for football, and it helped with the mental aspect,” Kagawa said. “It helped me be mentally stronger for football and basketball. In tennis, it’s mentally tough to play singles. In singles, if you make a mistake, you have to pick yourself up. In doubles, it’s easier because you have a partner. In football, you have 10 guys to pick you up if you make a mistake.
“What my grandparents taught me from a young age was to never quit. Once you start something, you have to finish it. You have to give your all for everything. That’s the most important thing they taught me.”
Kagawa’s athleticism really started to blossom when he picked up basketball as an 8-year-old. Then two years later, he joined a Keaukaha squad that included Lanaki Apele, Kaeo Alapai, Keoni Wong and Kekoa Turner — future teammates at Kamehameha, which placed fourth at states in the Division I tourney.
His path to football was a road met with resistance. His grandparents didn’t want him to play and get hurt. So Kagawa did his best to convince them.
“All my friends were going to play football my freshmen year,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play football, but my grandparents thought I was too small and undersized. I begged them the entire summer. The only agreement was I was to only play junior varsity for one year.
“The next summer, I begged again and made the varsity as a sophomore. There was a lot of begging. They finally accepted it after my junior year. My grandma can’t stand to watch games. She doesn’t like me to touch the ball as a running back.”
His future on the collegiate level — Oregon State is also showing interest — will likely be in the defensive backfield. And Kagawa will get a brush-up on his tackling skills with his spot duty at linebacker.
“He’s fast and jumps like a rabbit. He’s stronger than people think,” Lyons said. “At the next level, he’ll be a really good free safety, strong safety or cornerback. He’s a good corner guy. He’s got good anticipation and reads things really well. He’s physical and aggressive and his speed makes up for mistakes.”
Over the summer, Kagawa sharpened his athleticism with hard work, lifting weights and putting an emphasis on leg work — explosion drills, sled pushes and leg lifts. He sliced his 40 time to 4.49 seconds. That’s eye-catching info for recruiters.
The reward was not just the scholarship offer. It was the reaction from his grandparents.
“When I told them, they didn’t believe me. They called Bob Wagner,” he said. “When I heard I got a full ride I was happy that I’m able to go away to college, and get a free education. That’s the biggest thing.
“I always thought I would go to college from football, but not at the Division I level. I never expected that. But after the combine, that opened a bunch of doors.”
As for the BIIF title chase, the last three seasons have featured a different Division II champion. It’s been nice parity. It was Konawaena last year, Kamehameha in 2010 and Hawaii Prep the year before.
But Kagawa figures the road goes through Kona, especially with so many key losses on both sides of the ball for the Warriors. Attention will get thrown Kagawa’s way, in more ways than one. His recruiting stock will likely soar, and opposing teams will be wary of his presence.
“Our team looks pretty good. It looks like Kona will be our biggest challenge. We’re scheduled to play Kona in the last game of every round,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the team. I wouldn’t get this attention without my teammates. It’s because of them.
“I want to lead the team to another BIIF championship. It’s a different feeling as a senior in my last year. I want to get everybody on track and be the best leader I can be.”
Saturday: vs. Keaau, after 1 p.m. junior varsity
Aug. 31: vs. Kohala, 7 p.m.
Sept. 8: at Honokaa, 2 p.m.
Sept. 14: vs. Hawaii Prep, after 5 p.m. Waiakea-Kam JV
Sept. 21: at Ka‘u, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29: at Kona, after 5 p.m. JV
Oct. 6: vs. Kohala, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13: vs. Honokaa, 1 p.m.
Oct. 20: at HPA, 2 p.m.
Oct. 26: vs. Ka‘u, 7 p.m.
Nov. 2: at Kona, after 5 p.m. JV