There was the required rain for the BIIF canoe championships at Hilo Bay, where the weather was overcast with an unfriendly wind and inhospitable waters, setting the stage for Keaau’s dominance.
On Saturday, the Cougars solidified themselves, again, as the league’s powerhouse program, claiming the girls and mixed titles and grabbing double gold for the first time since 2014.
It’s the 18th year of BIIF canoe paddling, and that elusive sweep lives on for another year.
The Keaau boys were fourth in 4:10.37, far off Waiakea’s half-mile gold rush of 3:57.77. The Warriors last won the crown in 2016.
Kealakehe, the defending champs, placed third in 4:01.56, securing the league’s last spot to the HHSAA championships, slated for Saturday, Feb. 3 at Hilo Bay.
In the girls race, Keaau took down three-time defending champion Kamehameha, 4:28.96 to 4:35.36.
For third place and a state lane, Kealakehe had probably the greatest comeback for a medal at the BIIF championships in 4:48.19.
About 200 yards or two football fields from the finish, the Waveriders looked dead in the water. They were two canoe lengths, a good 90 feet behind the other four crews.
Somehow, the ’Riders pulled off a miracle finish. Last year, they were the league runner-up while the Cougars buried the flag and got hit with a disqualification.
In previous years, some BIIF schools have declined a state berth. It can be costly to travel to Oahu or the neighbor islands, considering there’s a short window to fund-raise.
Unlike the summer’s Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association, where points are rewarded at each regatta, it’s a one-shot deal at the BIIF championships. The regular season is basically a series of tune-ups.
In the mixed and final race of the day, Keaau spoiled the suspense for all the spectators on the beach with a time of 4:00.61, ahead of Kealakehe’s 4:05.28 and Parker’s 4:16.01.
To date, the Cougars have the longest winning streak with at least one title every season since 2013, their first boys championship.
Keaau, with six in a row, is closing in on Konawaena’s reign of eight consecutive years. That run was snapped in 2010.
Under former coach Paul Daugherty, the Wildcats pocketed the league’s only state championship in 2008 with the mixed crew. (Konawaena, once a supreme power, didn’t field a varsity team this season.)
It was a proud moment for the Warriors in 2016, when they captured the school’s first boys title. They dethroned the resident king at the time, Keaau, a three-time defending champ.
Ka‘iolana Kon, Joe Pakani, and Noah Eblacas were on that crew. They all helped bring home a second championship.
Kon, Eblacas, brothers Sena and Mesepa Short, Abel Pacatang, and Shannon Torres were on the gold crew. Pakani and Deion Joaquin paddled in the preliminary heat in place of the Short brothers.
“It’s a surprise,” Waiakea coach Mahea Stanley said. “We were pushing at the end, and a small kick at the end made the difference.”
Stanley was being modest.
At the only Hilo Bay regatta two weeks ago, Waiakea was first in the heat, and Hawaii Prep was second. In the final, it was reversed.
The Warriors were a threat then and will remain so. Most of the paddlers are juniors; Mesepa Short is a senior.
It won’t be much of a surprise if Waiakea makes another beeline for the BIIF crown again.
Still, the Warriors will need to fend off coach Mesepa Tanoai’s young Ka Makani, who got off track and made a correction before the finish, which cost them ground.
The Kealakehe girls cycled through a few strokers because of injuries and found a good one in sophomore Leanne Hamilton, who was in just her third race.
If there’s one intangible that trumps everything else, it’s teamwork. Six paddlers need to be in sync to keep the canoe soaring in a smooth rhythm.
Fortunately, the Waveriders have that in Hamilton, who set a fast stroke rate. As a bonus, she’s positive and enthusiastic, the type of paddler who leads her crew (Trinity Ballesteros, Tatelyn Spencer, Kamomi Villaverde, Asja Hickman, Darby Muramoto) in the right direction.
Sometimes, bronze feels as good as gold, especially when the finish line is two football fields away and last place looks far more realistic.
“It feels great,” said Hamilton, who radiates sunshine. “All season we’ve been coming in fourth. We worked hard to get third. I’m proud of myself and the crew.”
May Ann and Skyden
Keaau seniors May Ann Tadeo and Skyden Fukunaga have been anchors as a steersman and stroker, respectively.
Tadeo has been on three BIIF championship mixed crews while Fukunaga has been a part of two.
In a long wait, Tadeo finally got gold on the girls crew, overcoming Kamehameha and earning redemption after last season’s DQ.
“It feels so good,” she said. “Kamehameha has been so competitive. We’ve got a love for each and the sport. That’s why we’ve stayed together all these years.”
Sometimes, coaches teach more than their sport. They teach life lessons and provide lifetime memories. And they make their kids feel good about themselves.
“Before anything, I have to say much mahalos to coaches Grant and Anna Kaaua,” said Fukunaga, who’ll attend Hawaii Community College and wants to become an electrician. “It’s a family-oriented sport, and it’s changed my life, thanks to coach Grant.
“He taught me if there’s something I can’t do, I can do it. That has made me a doer. He introduced me to the sport, and I signed up as a freshman but didn’t come out.
“The next year, I signed up and told him I’d be there. I got to paddle in the mixed at states that year. He tells us it’s not the wins and losses, it’s if you give it your all that matters. That’s coach Grant’s philosophy.”
1. Keaau (Hunter Prieto, Tiara Halama, Makalei Watson, Liana Prudholm, Kyla Fabiani, May Ann Tadeo), 4:28.96; 2. Kamehameha, 4:35.36; 3. Kealakehe, 4:48.19; 4. Parker, 4:50.12 (DQ); 5. Waiakea, 4:51.54.
1. Waiakea (Sena Short, Mesepa Short, Kaiolana Kon, Abel Pacatang, Shannon Torres, Noah Eblacas), 3:57.77; 2. HPA, 3:58.71; 3. Kealakehe, 4:01.56; 4. Keaau, 4:10.37; 5. Hilo, 4:12.78; 6. Parker, 4:12.97; 7. Kamehameha, 4:18.56.
1. Keaau (Skyden Fukunaga, Tiara Halama, Keao Kiyuna, Folagi Aumavae-Laulu, Liana Prudholm, May Ann Tadeo), 4:00.61; 2. Kealakehe, 4:05.28; 3. Parker, 4:16.01; 4. Waiakea, 4:26.48; 5. Pahoa, 4:27.08; 6. HPA, 4:28.93.