It was a surprise when the Keaau girls, maybe not to them, captured first place at the first BIIF canoe paddling regatta held at Hilo Bay, where the weather was uncooperative last year.
On an overcast Saturday, the Cougars defeated three-time defending champion Kamehameha, 4:32.84 to 4:36.76, in a half-mile race worthy of note.
The Warriors return three starters in seniors Lahela Rosario and Kaiao Shine and junior Kylee Kubojiri. The Cougars also have three returnees in senior May Ann Tadeo and juniors Hunter Prieto and Tiara Halama.
Both crews are experienced so it’ll be a dogfight at the BIIF championships in two weeks. Also, expect the Cougars to come out with a vengeance. Last year, they were disqualified.
Surprise, surprise, the second shocker was Hawaii Prep bolting to first in the boys race, ahead of Waimea neighbor Parker, 4:01.30 to 4:09.39.
Coach Mesepa Tanoai’s Ka Makani last captured a BIIF boys title in 2011. The competition there is deep with a surging Parker, Waiakea (2016 champ), and defending champion Kealakehe, all in tow.
No surprise, the Keaau mixed crew clocked in 4:12.57, ahead of runner-up Kealakehe’s 4:15.28. The Cougars are the two-time defending champion and return starters Tadeo and Skyden Fukunaga.
It was a long time coming for Hilo Bay to host a regatta. Last year’s first event on Dec. 2 was canceled due to weather. The second race on Dec. 9 was moved to Kona Pier because of weather, again.
Kailua Pier will host the next regatta, followed by the BIIF championships at Hilo Bay.
In the 16-year history, no school has pulled the gold sweep. Keaau was the last to double (boys, girls) in 2014. HPA got a double (boys, mixed) in 2011.
Tadeo and five of her crewmates paddled for Keaukaha during the Moku O Hawaii season. The only one who didn’t was Makalei Watson, a volleyball player.
The future is bright because only Tadeo is a senior. Watson, Prieto, and Halama are juniors, Liana Prudholm is a sophomore, and Kyla Fabiani is only a freshman.
“The girls are the heart and soul of the team,” Keaau coach Grant Kaaua said. “They’re very pleasant and enjoyable to work with. We recommend if you want to be highly competitive to paddle during the summer. The kids decided to stick together, and it seems like the results show itself.
“Their club experience helps big time. They paddled in the Queen Liliuokalani race. I think they’re going to be lifetime paddlers.”
Sometimes the tag of being the heart and soul of a team is a description that goes beyond hard work. It’s also about other invaluable intangibles like appreciation. Those little things always rub off on teammates.
Tadeo, the steersman, piloted two crews to first place. But she made sure to credit her team and show her gratitude.
“It’s an honor. Not everyone gets to race twice,” she said. “You try to lead the team and pick them up. If there’s a bad turn, they pick me up. It’s a group effort.”
Ka Makani jump
After HPA’s title in 2011, Kealakehe won it the next year, followed by Keaau’s three-peat. Then it was Waiakea in 2016 and Kealakehe last season.
HPA has three returning starters in Daniel Groves, Hunter Ellis, and Jake Honl-DeGuiar, and the other starters are rookies in Ford Stallsmith, Kala Thurston and Keanu Young. Ellis and Honl-DeGuiar paddle for Kai Opua during the summer.
Groves and Young are seniors. Ellis, Honl-DeGuiar, and Thurston are juniors while Stallsmith is a sophomore. Last year at BIIFs, HPA was fifth and took its lumps. Tanoai credits the jump to the crew’s awareness and growth.
“They knew the competition, and if they wanted to be a part of it they would have to come together and make it happen,” he said. “Being experienced helps. Daniel is in his fourth year. He came in as a freshman and figured things out. One key is Jake. It’s his first year steering. He’s taken on a leadership role, and that’s really helped the crew.”
Ellis and Honl-DeGuiar also participated in the Molokai Hoe with paddlers from Kealakehe, where the Waverider paddlers turn into Kai Opua young guns during the summer. Basically, Ellis and Honl-DeGuiar are with their other teammates during the offseason.
Honl-DeGuiar has a big-picture perspective. He embraces his new role but also understands the best part about BIIF sports — the lifetime memories with friends and teammates.
“It’s fun being a steersman. I’ve been a stroker and sat in seat No. 2,” he said. “It’s different. There’s a little more pressure and responsibility, but it’s working out. The main thing I focus on is fun. I wish I had known to enjoy things more before. I only have one more year of this.”
Then he ran off to have a good time with his friends and teammates.
The boys race was the only one with a preliminary heat, and it was by far the most exciting.
About a football field away from the finish line, the streaking Ka Makani were a canoe’s length or 44 feet ahead of the pack. But Waiakea kept pushing and pushing and caught HPA with a fabulous late kick, 4:06.36 to 4:08.72.
When it’s so competitive, one key is drawing the inside lane by Wailoa River, where the current can provide an inside canoe with a nice momentum push out of the turn. Waiakea held an inside lane while HPA was out in the boonies by Coconut Island.
Waiakea’s crew is filled with football players: Ka’iolana Kona, Abel Pacatang, Shannon Torres, and Noah Eblacas. The other crew members are Deion Joaquin and Cameron McKeague.
Kon echoed the thoughts of most Hilo-based paddlers.
“It feels good to be in Hilo. We know our waters, and we’re comfortable here,” he said. “It’s good to have family watching us.”
In two weeks a much bigger crowd will be watching for a number of things at the BIIF championships: Will HPA return to former glory? Will the Kamehameha girls four-peat? Will Waiakea find comfort with a gold medal in hand?
Or maybe Keaau will drain much of the drama, continuing its dominance with a gold double. And maybe the Cougars find a way to make a big jump with their boys and achieve a historic sweep.
One thing is for sure, like Saturday, there will likely be a surprise or two or maybe three.
1. HPA (Daniel Groves, Ford Stallsmith, Hunter Ellis, Kala Thurston, Keanu Young, Jake Honl-DeGuiar), 4:01.30; 2. Parker, 4:09.39; 3. Waiakea, 4:10.58; 4. Kealakehe, 4:11.46; 5. Keaau, 4:13.00; 6. Hilo, 4:14.07; 7. Kamehameha, 4:22.83.
1. Keaau (Hunter Prieto, Tiara Halama, Makalei Watson, Liana Prudholm, Kyla Fabiani, May Ann Tadeo), 4:32.84; 2. Kamehameha, 4:36.76; 3. Parker, 4:40.74; 4. Kealakehe, 4:45.66; 5. Pahoa, 5:41.57.
1. Keaau (Skyden Fukunaga, Tiara Halama, Keao Kiyuna, Folagi Aumavae-Laulu, Liana Prudholm, May Ann Tadeo), 4:12.57; 2. Kealakehe, 4:15.28; 3. Parker, 4:21.33; 4. Kamehameha, 4:30.92; 5. Waiakea, 4:34.06; 6. Pahoa, 5:07.30.