BIIF paddling: Championship sweep challenging, but not impossible

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Keaau's girls crew crosses the finish line first at the BIIF championships at Hilo Bay.

History and long odds are stacked against any school sweeping all three races (girls, boys, and mixed) at the BIIF canoe paddling championships.

On Saturday at Hilo Bay, Keaau was the latest to produce double gold with the girls and mixed titles. The boys crew finished fourth. And that elusive BIIF sweep lives on, standing at 0 for 18.

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The other double before that was Keaau in 2014. The Cougars captured the first two races, and the drama went through the roof for the mixed race.

But Kealakehe beat Keaau by a healthy margin, 4:03.28 to 4:07.77. The Waveriders know that feeling of coming up short with a mixed miss.

In 2012, the Waveriders took the first two races but watched Hawaii Prep finish ahead of them, 4:00.75 to 4:03.86, for the mixed crown.

And Ka Makani coach Mesepa Tanoai and his team got a taste of that disappointment in 2011. That year, HPA won the front and back races but fell short in the boys event and out of the top three.

“It’s possible,” Tanoai said of the elusive sweep. “There’s always one link you need to work on. You have to find the right mix.”

Depending on the number of canoes, a crew could paddle twice for each event, in a preliminary heat and the final.

On Saturday, there was a small field for the girls race, so there wasn’t a heat, but there were prelims for the boys and mixed events.

Keaau’s May Ann Tadeo and Tiara Halama earned double gold with the girls and mixed crews.

For a school to accomplish that BIIF gold sweep, a team needs two important things: good depth and a better strategic game plan.

Does a coach risk gassing his best paddlers or gambling there’s no drop-off with reserves?

That same predicament carries over to the HHSAA tournament, and back in 2008, Konawaena beat the odds to win a gold in the mixed race, the league’s only first-place state finish.

However, it wasn’t easy.

The Wildcats paddled in the preliminaries, semifinals, and final. They placed first in the prelim, semis, and, of course, the championship.

Keaau senior Skyden Fukunaga, whose boys crew was fourth, believes a sweep is possible. But he points out that it’ll take more than depth and determination.

“It can be done, but it’ll take more than that,” he said. “It’ll take a good vibe, and everybody feels that from the coaches.”

One of Keaau coach Anna Kaaua’s slogans is “There’s only love, no drama.”

Her husband and fellow coach, Grant Kaaua, describes the tight-knit culture as a family rather than a team.

“That helps,” Fukunaga said. “Everybody knows we got each other’s back.”

That said, the Cougars do lose two major senior pieces in stroker Fukunaga and steersman Tadeo. Big-game experience is not something you can buy at the grocery store. Fukunaga and Tadeo know how to leap over tall buildings and win.

The Waiakea boys return all of their starters next season, and HPA is an incoming force, building its program after last taking a BIIF title in 2012.

Of course, one key is paddling unison. Kealakehe coaches Mike Atwood and Uncle Bo Campos are Kai Opua chiefs during the Moku O Hawaii season.

Most of the Waveriders compete for Big Blue during the summer, paddling with the same technique and teammates for long stretches to build invaluable chemistry.

No matter where the ’Riders finish during the previous season, they are always a threat to seize a BIIF title. Good example: 2017 boys and 2014 mixed crews.

The Cougars are building a similar pipeline with Keaukaha. Grant and Anna Kaaua coach there, and their Keaau paddlers follow along during the summer.

Maybe Keaau’s good vibe continues, and the coaches find the right mix (start their best paddlers in three races or rely on depth) and win a state title.

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And maybe a school does the same thing next season and pulls off a gold sweep at the BIIF championships that only looks impossible.

Nothing is impossible, not when there’s a good vibe and a team has the right mix. Konawaena is a perfect reminder of that.