By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Sione Holika remembers waking up early in the morning during the summer to run sprints in the darkness before the sun started boiling the sands at Hilo Bayfront.
Then the junior linebacker and the rest of his Hilo teammates — about 50 strong — would continue their offseason training, running laps around Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, while envisioning that the hard work would eventually pay off.
After posting an 0-7 record in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation last season, the Vikings have steered their ship in a better direction, rebounding, so far, to a 2-1 mark in Division I and 3-2 overall.
Hilo will play Keaau (0-3, 0-5) at 7:30 p.m. today at Wong Stadium, following the junior varsity game at 5 p.m., to start the second half of the BIIF season.
Last year, Holika made a couple of starts as a sophomore. He played on the JV as a freshman. His hard work during the summer has paid off, earning him the starter’s job at middle linebacker.
“He’s steadfast. That’s a good word to describe him,” Hilo coach Dave Baldwin said. “He’s one of the pillars of the team. He’s someone we can always count on. His character stands out. He’s quiet and humble. He’s upbeat but humble.
“He pursues the ball with passion. He has intellectual toughness and he’s the centerpiece of the defense, right now. He’s centered and disciplined and when he plays with intensity he’s a force.”
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Holika also applies that same focus to the classroom. His grade-point average runs in the 3.5 to 3.7 range. He’s looking to study astronomy when he heads to college.
He’ll get help landing a scholarship. He’s the first Hawaii recipient to receive a grant from ncsasports.org, a recruiting website, which will provide access to online recruiting classes and cover other aspects that give headaches to parents and student-athletes doing it on their own.
“The grant really means a lot to me, my coaches, my team and especially my family. It means hope and that I am capable of playing at the next level as a college student-athlete,” Holika said. “I was amazed and thankful to have such an opportunity. I felt proud that my parents and coaches could see me grow, and notice that I can be independent and help them out.
“My parents were so proud to hear that I got this grant. They almost broke into tears. They told me to do the best in everything I do, especially school and that my future will be full of opportunities.”
Learning about ncsasports.org through a friend, Holika checked out the website and applied for the grant, which looked for leadership in four areas: community, academics, athletics and essay.
He helped raise money for Jerry’s Kids, the national multiple sclerosis society, and wrote in his essay about his family. He’s one of eight children, and his dad Limoni Holika, a construction worker, suffered a stroke. His mom, Sanilaita Sipinga, makes crafts.
“My family supports me 100 percent and they’re hard workers,” Holika said. “I have an older brother and sister and they’re going to Hawaii Community College. I want to go on my own way to help out my parents.
“My dad had a stroke a couple of years ago and stopped working. I started to realize I had to do things to help my family and myself.”
He also competed in track and field last season, finishing sixth in the BIIF in the shot put. Holika qualified for the state meet, but didn’t place.
The team concept in football stirs something in Holika, whose brother Lotu is a sophomore running back on the junior varsity.
“I always try to bring my best to the football team and program because anyone can make a difference, but it takes a team to win,” Holika said. “My coaches, family and friends expect so much out of me on the field and in the class. They say when performance meets potential in each individual then we will do great as a team.”
He’s doing his part and the ncsasports.org website took notice.
“I’m hoping many people would get this grant because it would be a huge step into college and their life,” Holika said. “It would make a positive impact and help so much, especially to all the student-athletes.”
Holika remembers during the early morning summer sprints the distance was 40 yards. Despite the darkness, he kept running hard toward a goal that he couldn’t see.
If others apply their hard work toward a ncsasports.org grant, his suggestion is simple and familiar to his Hilo Bayfront workouts.
“My advice would be to create opportunities even if there aren’t any on the table,” he said.
To nominate a Spotlight feature on an athlete, email firstname.lastname@example.org.