By J.R. De GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
KAILUA-KONA — The Kealakehe paddling program made a statement at the first all-school regatta Saturday morning at Kailua Pier, making a clean sweep of the varsity girls, boys and mixed half-mile races.
“We had a good day,” Kealakehe coach Mike Atwood said. “Definitely the home court advantage and having the familiarity of the course helped us out.”
It is the second strong showing of the young Big Island Interscholastic Federation season by Kealakehe. Last weekend at the westside schools regatta, the Waveriders nearly completed the same sweep, but the Parker mixed crew edged the ‘Riders by less than a second.
Kealakehe won the girls and boys championships in 2012, but had to rebuild last season after losing multiple key members to graduation.
Now with more experience, it looks like the Waveriders are on track to contend again, but despite the early success, Atwood knows his crews have a long journey ahead.
“We will use this as a learning step but there is no reason to think just because we did this today that we can sweep the BIIF. That feat has never been done,” Atwood said. “It’s great to have competition like we have. It never lets us get comfortable.”
Kealakehe’s main rival on the water was Keaau — the defending boys champions. Keaau proved to be the beast of the east at the eastside regatta last weekend, sweeping the three varsity half-mile races by comfortable margins.
Saturday, the Cougars finished a close second to Kealakehe in the girls and mixed races, and would have recorded another second-place finish in the boys race if not for a controversial disqualification for bumping another team on the turn.
According to BIIF officials, the disqualification is based on a judgment call and cannot be disputed, even with video evidence. Keaau coach Grant Kaaua was not happy with the decision, but took it in stride.
“It’s almost a good thing,” Kaaua said. “It will make our kids hungry. It’s not going to set us back.”
With the second-place finishes and important lesson learned from the DQ behind them, Kaaua believes the Cougars are on pace to peak when they need to — the BIIF finals.
“I’m very happy with where we are at,” Kaaua said. “Last year at this point we were dead last going into the Christmas break. We have mandatory practices over Christmas break and it is really where we take big strides in improving. We tell the kids before they sign up for paddling that if they are not available during the break to not sign up.”
With all the Big Island schools competing and only eight lanes available, the crews were split into two heats. The top two teams in each heat qualified for the final race, with the other four being decided by fastest times.
With the possibility of some paddlers having to race four times, the event was as much a test of endurance as it was speed.
“It takes more conditioning, especially when it’s hot like this,” Atwood said. “For the varsity teams we prepared them for this. In practice we told them they might be racing in four times and they can’t just show up and expect to win.”
The next BIIF regatta is set for Jan. 4 at Hilo Bay.