Canoe paddling: Keaukaha men’s freshmen crew stays unbeaten; Kai Opua, Puna tie for top spot

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Keaukaha's men's freshmen crew – Kyle Keamo, Tyler Makaiwi, Nate Kaluhiwa, Keahi Warfield, Jose Lizardi, Kama Lee Loy – remained undefeated Saturday.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Keaukaha and Puna, foreground, make the turn Saturday during their 1-mile men's freshmen race at Hilo Bay.

Jose Lizardi and Kama Lee Loy are part of the undefeated Keaukaha freshmen crew, which has figured out a game plan to stake claim to a Moku O Hawaii Outrigger Canoe Racing Association property that Puna previously owned.

The past two years, Puna captured the half-mile freshmen title at the Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii championships by healthy margins while Keaukaha and other clubs stared at the back of those Green Pride T-shirts.

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On Saturday at its regatta, Keaukaha (Nate Kaluhiwa, Kyle Keamo, Lee Loy, Lizardi, Tyler Makaiwi, and Keahi Warfield) posted a time of 7:26.02 to defeat Puna’s 7:28.36 at Hilo Bay, where good weather prevailed for all 41 events.

The last time Keaukaha captured the freshmen championship was in 2015; Puna was third. Kaluhiwa, Lee Loy, Lizardi, and Makaiwi were on that crew. It’s the first time the unbeaten six are on the freshmen crew together.

In a sign that the 13th annual Aunty Maile/Moku O championships will likely feature fireworks, Kai Opua and three-time defending champion Puna, with two fewer crews, tied with 193 points for Division A (15-41 events).

Big Blue pocketed all four previous regattas, the first three at Kailua Pier. Puna traditionally picks up steam in the second half of the season, but Kai Opua showed medal-collecting resilience, a key to being in the ballpark.

Puna won 24 medals, including 14 gold. Kai Opua seized 25 medals, including eight gold and 11 silvers. If the West Hawaii club couldn’t finish first, Big Blue tail-gated and gained points.

It’s impactful when other clubs outside of the Big Two claim victories. It gives them a chance to move up the Moku O Hawaii standings for necessary points to snag a state lane to the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association championships. Even better, it adds to the drama and suspense between Puna and Kai Opua.

Keaukaha’s perfection in the freshmen race is, in no small part, a blueprint on what it will take to someday knock off the Big Two and challenge for an Aunty Maile/Moku O Hawaii championship. Only Puna (2007, 2015-17) and the West Hawaii perennial contending KO club have seized titles in the association’s 60-plus history.

Basically, the Keaukaha freshmen crew has paddled nonstop since the end of last season, hitting the OC1 scene or relay races. It’s the oldest strategy in the book: outwork the competition.

“Nate, Keahi, and I did the solo Molokai race, and Tyler and Kama did the relay,” Lizardi said. “It was pretty tough and grueling, but it helped out a lot.”

The lava flow has dominated the news, but a close second was the constant wet weather. It was the worst conditions ever for the BIIF season, where there was an unprecedented number of postponements.

But Lizardi and his guys practiced during the cats and dogs downpour.

“It sucked,” he said. “But if you want to be as good as you can, you have to train, no matter what, rain or shine.”

Lizardi, 28, is a 2008 Hilo graduate, who played basketball for the Vikings. His old coach was Keamo, who persuaded Lizardi to try canoe paddling.

“I gave it a try, enjoyed it and never left,” said Lizardi, who’s a paramedic and gym rat. “I try to play basketball whenever I have free time. But the main thing is canoe paddling is my sport.”

Lifetime paddler

Lee Loy, 27, is a Keaukaha diehard paddler. He joined the club when he was 7 years old, went to Kamehameha-Kapalama, graduated in 2009 and was into water polo, canoe paddling, and track as a Warrior. During the summer, he returned home to paddle for Keaukaha.

He works for the DLNR’s Natural Area Reserve System. When he isn’t camping in the mountains and building fences, Lee Loy is out on the water. For the first time, he competed in the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association, trucking it from Keokea (Kapaau) to Hana (Maui) in the Alenuihaha Challenge.

That was 40 miles nonstop from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on a six-man canoe with two outriggers and a sail. There were eight canoes but two needed to be escorted to Maui after suffering damages.

“I had no sailing background,” Lee Loy said. “It was wild out there. The wind was the toughest thing and squalls. You try to use the wind as much as you can.”

Lee Loy acknowledged that Puna is a good motivation as any to step up. But he pointed out there’s no secret to the Keaukaha freshmen crew’s unbeaten season so far.

“It’s old-fashioned hard work,” he said.

Laka streaks

Paddlers of Laka swept the first five races (girls 12, boys 12, mixed 12, girls 13, and boys 13) for the second consecutive regatta.

The mixed 12 has won all five regattas, the girls 12 and 13 crews three straight, and the boys 13 crew has also claimed three in a row.

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Unbeatens

The other undefeated crews are Paddlers of Laka mixed 12, Kai Ehitu women novice B, Kai Opua girls 14, Kai Opua boys 14, Waikoloa mixed novice B, Kai Opua boys 16, Kai Opua boys 18, Kawaihae women freshmen, Kai Ehitu men 40, Keaukaha men 60, Kai Opua women 55, Puna women 50, and Puna men 50.