State Champions Give Thanks to the Many Supporters and Fans of Lahainaluna Football
By Rodney S. Yap
Of all the things the Lahainaluna High School football team accomplished in 2016, understanding the truth about hard work and the amount of effort it takes to set a goal, make a plan, and execute on task week after week, will undeniably serve as their legacy.
After all, these Lunas did go further than bigger, stronger, and faster qualifiers from the past. At first glance, second glance, and a long stare down to be sure, nothing extra-ordinary can be seen, adding to the skepticism and second guessing.
Young and talented, this Lunas’ team leaned on each other, played fearless and with reckless abandon, but never compromising the core values of the program, always remembering to respect themselves and their coaches regardless of how difficult the journey gets..
What started almost 15 weeks ago, ended last Friday at Aloha Stadium on Oahu with a trophy celebration and the school’s alma mater, sung in Hawaiian by the Lunas’ newly crowned Division II state championship team.
Fifty-four members strong, their collective voices sending shivers through the locker room and adjacent tunnel lined with coaches and media. The song triggers both tears of joy and sighs of relief among the Luna faithful.
“More than anything else, what this championship does is it solidifies the importance of hard work, which is something we are always preaching to the kids,” said Lahainaluna defensive coach Kenui Watson, about the team’s 21-14 win over Kapaa High School of Kauai on Nov. 18. “Without hard work it is very difficult to succeed in life. Now, these kids know how to work for it.”
In a post-game speech, following the alma-mater, co-head coach Garret Tihada addressed an amped-up team and fed them one last line.
“We told them after the game that we kept a secret from them. The secret is, ‘You’re not that good!’ “
“But they worked so hard,” the coach noted. “We’ve never seen a group work harder and they just bought into everything we did. When we made those changes on offense, no one grumbled or had anything negative to say. Instead, their attitude was OK, let’s do it.”
Strategies, techniques, sweat, sacrifice, trust, adjustments, and self-esteem are some of the life lessons coaches teach their players when mastering hardship, rebounding from setbacks, trusting your teammates and choosing to handle criticism and adversity without compromising team values and integrity.
The process seems to always be the same, it’s the outcome that finally changed in favor of the Lunas after falling short on three previous attempts — 2007, 2012, 2014 — in the last 10 years.
Last Wednesday, Lahainaluna’s long-time coach Bobby Watson recalls the conversation he had with former Lunas’ head coach Lanny Tihada after the final whistle blew and the two were making their way to the elevator from the coaches box.
Watson said Tihada asked, “Do you want to go down to the field?” And Watson responded, “No, I don’t want to go to the field, there’s no need.”
Seconds later, Watson turned to look at Tihada and said, “Coach, I am just glad we got one.”
Similar emotions spewed from the coaches on the field the younger Watson, Kenui, said: “We were happy and shaking hands, but inside we were thinking the same thing: ‘We finally got one’ “
Minutes later, the Watsons embraced each other on the field.
“We hugged, and then we both looked at each other said the same thing at the same time: ‘We finally got one,“ Kenui noted.
Coach Bobby said after everything was done and the coaching staff was alone, they looked around and collectively agreed on this final assessment: “Who would have thought that it would be this team.”
Laughter ensued, and eventually replaced by an unsuspecting smile.
”It’s always been our style to take one year at a time and not look too far ahead,” Coach Bobby Watson said. “We’ve been patient. I think we have the program on the right track as far as putting our kids in position to win a state championship. Our goal has always been to get our kids to the final game, so they will get more exposure. That hasn’t changed. That remains the ultimate goal for us.
“Winning a championship is great, but only if we win it the right way, with all the right values.”
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, and with the 2016 Holiday season upon us, the Lahainaluna football team — coaches and players — would like to thank the following individuals, teams and supporters for contributing to our successful Division II state championship run:
* Retired teacher Mrs. Lori Gomez.
Former English teacher Gomez also coordinates the annual David Malo program.
In 2012, the team asked the school band to not play the alma mater any more, coach Garret Tihada explained: “Because we wanted the kids to sing it. And Lori came out to work with the kids, about twice a week.”
Tihada said there are two versions of the only all-Hawaiian alma mater in the 50th state, representing the oldest school west of the Rockies. The team only sings the longer version when they are alone, Tihada said.
Part of the football tradition at Lahainaluna has the team singing the school song six times on any given road game. For instance, the team starts singing when the bus leaves the school (1), then again as the bus pulls into War Memorial Stadium (2), and then right before the game (3). Then they sing it right after the game (4); then again when they leave the stadium (5), and finally, when they arrive at the school (6).
* Maui’s Big Boyz League and Jack Damuni.
Damuni is the President and Founder of Maui’s Big Boyz League, a no-weight limit league for intermediate school players, between 6th and 8th grade.
Since joining the Big Boyz League three years ago, the Lunas have dominated, losing just once during that time span. The Lunas finished undefeated their first year and again last year. The lopsided final scores are often shut outs, as opposing teams have found it difficult to score at the intermediate level.
In a 2015, Maui’s Big Boyz League was previewed online for MauiNow.com. In the story, Damuni points to the Lahaina coaching staff behind the goal post as they talk to their players at halftime, and says: “Look at those guys over there. It’s unbelievable to see all of those coaches out here, from one of the winningest football programs in the state. It’s important to have Lanny Tihada, Bobby Watson and Garret Tihada out here. What that tells me is that they believe in our system. For me, I feel strongly that this league is only going to get bigger and better.”
Damuni predicted that the Big Boyz League would help teams like Lahainaluna, a perennial state postseason representative in Division II.
Coach Garret Tihada said more kids have been coming out to play football at Lahainaluna now because we’re the same coaches.
“We don’t coach them any differently. But I guess they were afraid before and wouldn’t turn out.”
The Big Boyz team suited up 53 players last year. The varsity had 54, including 24 juniors, and the MIL champion junior varsity team fielded a league-high 58 players.
“Everything that’s taught at the varsity level is taught at Big Boyz, we hold back a few plays here and their, but the verbiage is all the same
“From the juniors we have on the roster this year, almost all of them have played Big Boyz with us, so we’ve actually been coaching those kids from then,” Kenui Watson said.
“So now they have football knowledge, our kind of football knowledge. Things that we want them to do, they already understand and as they get older it gets easier,” added Bobby Watson.
* Lanny Tihada, Vice-President of Friends of Lahainaluna Football.
Lanny Tihada is a 1966 Lahainaluna graduate and former Lunas head coach from 1977 to 1988. He is also the father of current co-head coach Garret Tihada.
Lanny continues to impact Lahainaluna football through his work with Friends of Lahainaluna Football, a non-profit organization. He also assists the Lahainaluna High School Foundation and helped the Lahainaluna Stadium Project become a reality.
In 2016, Friends of Lahainaluna Football received its exempt organization status from the IRS and now brings in $98,033 in annual income, primarily through unclassified revenue.
“It’s a huge, huge part of our success,” Garret said of Friends of Lahainaluna Football. “Now we don’t have to worry about anything. Things like equipment and even travel is stress-free because we have the money to do it.”
“Now everybody can participate,” Kenui Watson said.
“Now kids in Lahaina don’t pay a dime,” said Coach Bobby Watson.
“We wanted to be able to suit up all our kids, that was our first goal. Secondly, when kids want to go to camps now we have the equipment. This past year 10 to 12 players went to football camps.”
“We couldn’t do anything financially without Lanny,” Watson added. “He’s the guy who has helped us raise money, from our golf tournament. Thanks to him, the kids that go on these trips with us, they don’t have to pay.”
* Strength Program, directed by Kenui Watson. He is assisted by Lawrence Kauhaahaa, Strength Coach Specializing in Olympic Weightlifting
“Kenui has taken our strength program to a whole different level,” said Garrett Tihada. “The opportunity to lift in the mornings was always there, even way back to when I was playing. But we didn’t have the commitment that we have today until Kenui got involved.
When we were in high school there was just a handful of kids. Then in the early 2000s, when Lake Casco and Carson Chihara were playing we would pick them up in the mornings. Again, there was still just a small handful coming out. Now, basically our whole team lifts in the morning and that’s all because of Kenui being relentless with these kids. It’s unreal how much its changed.”
“Collectively, from top to bottom, from seniors to freshman, they are all strong. If you look at a guy like (Eliajah) Ragudo, he’s pretty small (5-foot-6, 140 pounds), except he can squat almost 350 pounds, and he can power clean 240.
“We don’t have huge gaps between our strongest guys, who can clean 315 and our weakest guys at 135. That used to be a problem, but now everybody on this team is strong and they all can power clean 225, right across the board.”
The team’s improved strength levels also meant fewer injuries, which was not a negative issue, but instead a contributing factor to the team’s success.
“It helped us to have everybody out there, rather than on the sidelines injured,” Tihada said.
OK, the team is not the most impressive, size wise, when they walk off the bus. But the mirror doesn’t lie, and twice this year coach Bobby Watson had to reminded his players to look into that mirror.
Watson’s last gut-check came at halftime of the Konawaena game. That’s when Watson stood face to face with his players and challenged them to stop retreating.
“Why are you running away from them? He may be bigger than you, but you’re twice as strong as him, so don’t be afraid of his size — run him over!”
* Sue Cooley and Sue D. Cooley Stadium.
Lahainaluna continues to reap the rewards for having your own facility on campus, and not just in the sport of football, but other sports like track and soccer. In track, for instance, the school has earned two gold medals and one silver medal in the boys 110 high hurdle event the last three years.
In 2015, the football team won a Division II state postseason tournament game 7-0 against visiting Kaimuki. Should the Lunas qualify for their 11th consecutive D-II tournament next year and be awarded the No. 1 seeding, it would make the possibility of hosting a semifinal game on the westside a dream come true,
“I don’t want to jinx it, but Sue Cooley has never seen us lose,” Garrett Tihada said. “Every game that she’s shown up to we’ve won, it’s just amazing, and there’s been a few that we weren’t supposed to win.”
* The Lahaina Community and school supporters.
The exercise of holding a sign or poster while lining up and down Lahainaluna Road, is officially a new tradition with the football team. Family and friends stand along side the road, waving signs and posters at the team bus when it leaves for the airport and also when the team returns to the school.
“I was starting to feel bad for the fans when we didn’t return home with the championship,” Garret Tihada said. “We have to remember that they want this for us and we shouldn’t feel bad when we see them out there. But until this year, it’s been hard. We just feel really, really bad when we don’t comeback with the victory. But the support has been unreal.”
* Lahainaluna Living Legends Henry “Bruno” Ariyoshi, Andrew Kutsunai, and Robert Kawaguchi.
Ariyoshi is a former school principal and head football coach at Lahainaluna, Kutsunai is a long-time supporter and former teacher, while Kawaguchi is the school’s former athletic director.
“I recently had the privilege to talk to all three of them. Of course I thanked them for all their contributions and time spent assisting at our golf tournament.
“They don’t think it’s a big deal, but it is to me and I’ve talked to them about it. To have them participate in our golf tournament every year is so valuable.”
After all, Tihada said they have taught or coached more than half of the participating golfers.
“It’s such a nice and special thing for the golfers to see them on a yearly basis. Because it shows where our roots come from. That’s because it started with Mr. Ariyoshi as far as our work ethic and discipline.
“A lot of people only look at our success today, but Mr. Ariyoshi is the man who laid down the foundation for our success.”
* Guardian Caps.
The Guardian Cap is the leading soft shell helmet cover, engineered for impact reduction. It brings a padded, soft-shell layer to the outside of the decades old hard-shell football helmet and reduces impact by up to 33%.
Tihada said the team invested in Guardian Caps, purchasing one for every helmet.
“And we used them every single day in practice, and at every single scrimmage and I think we had only two potential concussions, I’m not even sure if they were concussions.”
While the caps can be a bit cumbersome, because its attached to the facemark, it appears to be doing its job and keeping the players safe.
“Its a padding that you slip on your facemark and clip on to your helmet,” Tihada noted. “Kids look like they have massive heads, because its 2 1/2 inches thick. But it also helps preserve the helmet from everyday wear and tear.”
* Bluetooth and iPads.
The MIL rule allowing coaches access to live playback on their portable hand-held devices during games, turned out to be a big plus for us, Tihada said.
“You can buy programs from several companies on the Mainland, but it was a big, big help to us. Now coaches kind find out what’s happening on the field right away. Sometimes, if your just using the naked eye, we’ll get seven opinions on what just happened. But you pull out the iPad and its very clear what’s happening and that was a big plus for us.”
* Maui High and Baldwin.
“Our two Division I teams made us better. Maui High and Baldwin made our D-II teams better, but unfortunately I don’t think we got the D-I teams better,” said Coach Bobby Watson.
* Speed and Quickness by Randy Casco.
Free to all the kids every Monday.
“Speed and quickness has allowed us to fill in the gaps. Now we have everything covered,” Coach Bobby Watson said.
* All former Lahainaluna players.
“Lastly, as coaches we want to thank all the former players, not just the ones who got close, but all the players,” Garret Tihada said. “Because we learn from everybody — every player that comes through, and every team that comes through. So every year those kids we coach actually become part of the blue print for our success.
“We go to clinics and what not, but we learn so much from these kids and they are contributing to the next group of kids. For all these kids that have come through our program, that have texted me or posted ‘Congratulations Coach’ on Facebook, I thank them for being a part of this team. And I know they are not looking at this and thinking its part of their victory, but it is, it really is.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tomorrow MauiNow.sports will have more from the Watsons, Coach Bobby and Coach Kenui, about Lahainaluna’s historical run to the 2016 First Hawaiian Bank State Division II Championship.