By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Honokaa wrestling team has never had the fortune of depth, filling all 14 weight classes or 28 spots for boys and girls, at least not in coach Dan Whetstone’s 12-year tenure.
That makes winning a Big Island Interscholastic Federation championship a pretty tough challenge. Last season, the Dragons were third for the boys and fifth for the girls. They also had four gold medalists, all gone to graduation.
Despite the lack of a deep roster, Honokaa has the next best thing: an ability to churn out title contenders.
After Saturday’s dual-site competition at Honokaa and Pahoa, there are just two more meets before the BIIF championships, which reward the top three finishers in each weight class a berth to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
The BIIF championships will be held Feb. 15 at Keaau. Up next is another dual-site competition on Saturday at Hawaii Prep and Hilo, a chance for schools to hold concession and fund-raise for the annual trip to states on Oahu.
“We’re pretty small but have pretty good quality,” Whetstone said. “Last year, we had 12 or 13 boys and five or six girls. This year, we’ve got six girls and five boys, including a freshman. The other four are vying for the top two at BIIFs.”
Here’s a look at a few of Whetstone’s hungry Dragons:
• Payton Cawagas, a junior in the 145-pound weight class: He placed third at 135 at BIIFs last season, put on weight and jumped two divisions where Pahoa’s Reed Hayashikawa rules. Last year, he lost the title to Honokaa’s Kalani Krael. To give Hayashikawa additional ammunition, he was pinned.
“Payton has gotten better, he’s more experienced and he’s only lost to one other wrestler,” Whetstone said. “His brother and sister both wrestled. They helped him. He came in with time and experience. He’s got good technique.
“But that Pahoa kid keeps beating him. He’s pretty strong and has good technique himself. We’re hoping Payton takes second at BIIF or pulls an upset. We’re hearing noise that he (Hayashikawa) might go down to 138. We’re hoping he might.”
• Austin Sprague, junior at 152: He lost last season at BIIFs to Waiakea’s Alan Ikehara, renown for his fine footwork. He transferred from Waianae last year, and fared well as a rookie. But the experienced Ikehara stands in his way.
“Last week Austin pinned him,” Whetstone said. “But the Ikehara kid came back with a vengeance. Still it was fun for Austin to have that win. He’s got good endurance. He’s the first guy on our runs, the first guy to come back in. It’s going to be tough for him to take first. I just wished last weekend was BIIFs.”
• Riley Rechiro, sophomore at 220: He wrestled above his division as a freshman, battling heavyweights. The weight class changed from 215 to 220. At practice, he trained with departed Christian Silva, the 215 BIIF champ.
The biggest weight classes are 285, 220, 195 and 182. Last season it was 275, 215, 189 and 171. The only weight classes to stay the same are 120, 145, 152, and 160. (The 120 and 160 title spots are open; 145 and 152 are property of Hayashikawa and Ikehara.)
“Riley’s got a lot of heart,” Whetstone said. “He’s got pretty good technique. Last year was his first year and he caught on pretty quick. I’m hoping he’ll make top two at BIIFs. The top three go to states. It’s good especially if the underclassmen get to go and get experience at states.”
• Charlotte Taylor, freshman at 109: Hilo’s Katie Funai is the defending BIIF champ. But Whetstone likes his youngster’s fire-breathing attitude.
“She’s still learning but getting better quickly,” he said. “I think she’s done some boxing, so she’s pretty tough. She’s got endurance, too. Her technique is not quite there, but she makes up for it with aggressiveness. I think she has a chance to win at BIIFs or be top two.”
• Brandy Ilac-Wong, sophomore at 121: She was third in the same weight class last season. Whetstone commends her toughness and strength. She also played Pop Warner football. Ilac-Wong has lost to only a Kealakehe wrestler and beaten everyone else.
• Kamele Sanchez, junior at 135: She was the runner-up last season, and qualified for states the last two years, impressive work as a freshman. Last season, HPA’s Loke Ching beat Sanchez 17-4 for the title.
• Stevie Pactol, junior, at 175: She wasn’t on the team last year, but is seasoned with a sibling who wrestled and showed her the ropes.
“She came in with experience,” Whetstone said. “She used to hang out with her sister and learned from her. We thought she’d have 175 all to herself, but a new Ka‘u girl showed up. She only has one competitor and has beaten everybody else.
“She’s very technical, knows all the moves and is a good teacher. She helps teach the other wrestlers. It’s good to have her around.”
Maybe that’s why the Dragons keep producing an annual crop of title contenders. There might not be much depth, but Honokaa wrestlers help each other out. For a long-time coach like Whetstone, that’s as good as gold when his wrestlers become teachers.