By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Akoakoa Paleka-Kennedy couldn’t have produced a better season at junior-college powerhouse Arizona Western College, where he was named a first team All-American, All-Conference and All-League.
The 6-foot-3, 275-pound center and 2012 Kamehameha graduate recently signed a scholarship with Midwestern State University, a Division II school in Texas, where football is king.
Last season as a freshman, Paleka-Kennedy earned All-American honorable mention, second team all-conference and Western State Football League recognition for the Matadors, who played in bowl games the past two seasons and finished as the national champion runner-up in 2012.
New Mexico Military Institute defeated Arizona Western 32-16 in the El Toro Bowl Championship on Dec. 7. A year earlier, the Matadors ended a 40-year bowl win drought with a 42-37 victory over Nassau Community College in the 2012 El Toro Bowl.
“My best moment was winning a bowl game my freshman year,” Paleka-Kennedy said. “This season wasn’t too good. We had a young team. I was the only returning starter on offense. We won games that we could but had to work harder. We had to learn on the move really quick, mature really quick, but couldn’t do that.”
It didn’t help that the Matadors had five wins overturned by the National Junior College Athletic Association in October after an audit showed two players’ transfer documents had not been signed by the previous college.
At the time AWC was ranked 10th and had a 7-2 record. It was downgraded to 2-7, and the school appealed to the NJCAA and received a waiver to remain eligible for the El Toro Bowl. AWC finished 2-10 overall, including 2-8 in WSFL play.
Then a week after the bowl game, the All-American honors were announced. Only one other Matador, a freshman linebacker, received first-team recognition. The first-team clean sweep at three levels bowled over Paleka-Kennedy, who has a 2.8 grade-point average as a criminal justice major.
“I was surprised,” he said. “All the hard work paid off, spending time in the weight room, doing work, studying film. It always pays off in the end. This season, I lost a little weight, had more agility and did more explosive training.
“Usually our coaches recommend players to the colleges. The Midwestern coaches came to Arizona Western looking to recruit players. I wasn’t there that day, but they left a message. They’ve got a lot of good facilities over there.”
From about 10 offers on the table, Paleka-Kennedy narrowed his choices to three Division II schools: Fort Hays State in Kansas, Colorado State University-Pueblo, and Midwestern, which went 7-3 overall, including 3-3 in the Lone Star Conference.
As a freshman safety at Butte College, in Oroville, Calif., Mikey Rabara (2013 Konawaena) didn’t start, but played in the first seven of the team’s 12 games. A bone chip in his ankle sidelined him for the last five.
Rabara was on crutches and on the home team’s sidelines when the Roadrunners beat Fresno City College 41-21 on Nov. 30 for the Northern California Championship, and Fullerton College 28-13 on Dec. 14 in the State Championship game.
A day later, Butte (12-0), the former home of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was announced as the national co-champion with East Mississippi in a shared No. 1 ranking in the JCGridiron.com poll.
“That was pretty exciting. It fuels me for next year,” said Rabara, who’s back home and leaves for Butte on Jan. 22. “I went in four of the seven games and played safety in the second half, when we were winning games by a lot of points. They’d throw the second-string guys in. I was happy to make the travel squad and play on special teams, just contribute whatever I could.
“Going from high school ball in Hawaii to college ball was kind of a leap. I fought and was happy to be at least on the team, contributing to wins every week. I was playing on special teams and was happy where I was.
“The injury happened at the worst time. I was getting our style, doing really good and getting an opportunity to play. But like the coaches told me, you have to get healthy and bigger, faster and stronger every year you’re supposed to come back. I’m excited for next year.”
Jordan Cristobal (2013 Kealakehe) redshirted for Butte.
Closer to home
Waihilo Chartrand, a libero at Eastern Arizona for two years, is another member of the 2012 senior class to land a full-ride scholarship to a four-year school. She recently signed to play volleyball for Chaminade, a member of the Pacific West Conference that includes UH-Hilo.
The 5-6 Hilo High graduate has been back at home and is set to leave for Chaminade today. She’s enrolling early to finish a science class to get her AA degree to have enough credits to transfer.
“Eastern Arizona was a good experience to get away from home, and I was able to be more independent,” said Chartrand, a criminal justice major with a 3.3 GPA. “Chaminade is closer to home. It’s not home home, but I’ll still be on my own. That was pretty much the only place I was interested in going. I wanted to be closer to home. I’m enrolling early to train with the team in the spring. The best thing is I get to play in front of my family.”
AWC is also turning into a destination point for basketball. Sophomore point guard Jacy Pagala (2012 Keaau) and freshman guard Sefulu Faavae (2013 Waiakea) are both on scholarship.
Pagala, who has a 3.87 GPA, was named AWC’s Student-Athlete of the Month on Jan. 2 for her excellence in the classroom and on the basketball court.
“Jacy is a competitor and always plays with a high level of intensity,” AWC coach Patrick Cunningham said. “She’s not as gifted an athlete, but is always willing to leave it all out on the floor for us. Her maturity level keeps her effort consistent, which is all we ask for out of our players and her physical toughness sets an example for her teammates.”
The Matadors (10-7) are 1-1 in the new year and play Pima College at home today.
“Last year I was the point guard and we were third in our region,” Pagala said. “This year, I’ve been playing off and on with the other point guard. We’ve been struggling but holding our own.”
Faavae can thank Pagala for her scholarship.
“I’m a backup guard, but I got a full-ride through Jacy,” said Faavae, who has a 3.0 GPA. “She talked to the coaches. I sent some clips and he offered me. We talked through email and on the phone.
“When I first got here, it was really hot — 110 degrees. As it got into winter, it was 50 degrees. I’ve seen both extremes. Walking from class to the dorm, you can get a sunburn.”
Ryan Thomas (2012 Kamehameha) didn’t play much as a freshman libero (12 matches and just 23 sets) for the University of Mount Olive, a Division II school in North Carolina. But the senior starter graduated, leaving the sophomore to compete with two freshman recruits for playing time.
Unlike women’s volleyball, there are limited men’s programs, about 30 in Division I and less than 10 in Division II, so both divisions compete for the same national championship.
The Trojans, who start their season Jan. 15, were 22-6 last season, losing to Limestone in the semifinals of the Conference Carolinas volleyball tournament on April 10, last year.
There’s nothing like playing big-time programs in Thomas’ eyes. On Mount Olive’s road schedule is No. 8 Lewis on Jan. 17, No. 2 Loyola on Jan. 19, and No. 11 Penn State on Jan. 31.
“Loyola upset UC Irvine, the two-time national champs,” he said. “Then the next Thursday we get Penn State.”
On his profile on the school’s website, Thomas, who’s never far from home (4,800 miles), at least in his heart, is asked the question: If you could schedule one tournament for Mount Olive, where would it be?
His answer, “Hilo, Hawaii.”
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