Ian Van Cleave is right back where he belongs as the co-coach of Keaau. He’s a 2006 Keaau graduate, who was on the football team during its runner-up finish to Kealakehe for the BIIF title in his senior year.
He’s now a PE teacher at the school, and the other co-coach is Leo Abellera, Van Cleave’s old coach back in the day.
Together they’re trying to take the Cougars to a better place. The team finished 2-5 in the BIIF Division I standings in 2018.
“I wouldn’t want to coach at anywhere else,” Van Cleave said. “I’m back at my alma mater. I want to give back to the community, a place where I grew up.”
Abellera will handle grades and disciple, watch over the weight room, anything to lighten Van Cleave’s load. Last year’s junior varsity coach will be in charge of running practices and have a firm hand in running the ship.
“He’s all in. He’s a go-getter. He’s level-headed and consistent,” Abellera said. “He doesn’t do things half-way. He’s got a good rapport with the kids. He has a lot of patience, and he’s easy to talk to.”
The Cougars return senior quarter Bryant Respicio-Mercado but lost running back Storm Qulinderino, who transferred to Waialua on Oahu’s North Shore.
“Bryant is a big, athletic kid,” Van Cleave said. “He’s big and strong. He’s a good teammate, coachable and everything you want in a teammate. He’s athletic and can play.”
Keaau’s running game will feature a rotation of runners including juniors Dshane Bannister, Bronson Respicio-Mercado, and Duncan Castro, and senior Carlos Lopez.
“Bronson is a natural athlete. It’s in his bloodline,” Van Cleave said. “One thing our running back coach wants is for them to run angry, and they’re doing that. They’ also learning about vision and improving in that area. “
The Cougars will run the spread and rotate their slotbacks and wide receivers. But Bronson Respicio-Mercado and Donovan Hernandez will be a slot and wideout.
Shaden Abejon, Westin Joseph, Aiden Armstrong-Reiger, Justin Kasai are all seniors and will split time between the receiving corps and secondary.
The offensive line took a hit when three players moved away. But Van Cleave has been impressed with the progress of senior Kapono Cordeiro, the resident strong man in Keaau’s weight room.
“He can bench press over 400 pounds,” Van Cleave said. “He’s unreal strong. He’ll play on the defensive side, too. He’ll really help us.”
Kumukoa Adolpho, Sonatane Lopeti, Hunter Nasworthy, CJ Gouveia will get snaps on the O-line.
“CJ has improved a lot from last year,” Van Cleave said. “I’ve been impressed with CJ. He’s a big reason the O-line has been improving.”
Tevita Fukofuka, a junior, will anchor the defensive line. Van Cleave has been recruiting the first-year junior to football since he was a freshman. He finally reeled in a prized catch.
“This kid is in such good shape. It’s ridiculous. He’s 185 pounds with no body fat at all,” Van Cleave said. “In our conditioning drills, he’s the first one done. He participated in a physique contest and came in second place.
“He’s another outstanding kid who’s so respectful. He’s one of the most hard-working kids I’ve ever known. He’s so raw to football. He’s so physical and athletic that he’ll be a major bright spot.”
Bannister, the running back, will start at middle linebacker. Don’t worry about him getting winded from double duty. He’s known for his endurance.
“He’s probably our to linebacker,” Van Cleave said. “He’s in outstanding shape and doesn’t get tired. He’s a good kid, too, like Tevita. We’ll be rotating a lot of guys at linebacker.”
The receiving corps will be non-stop running at games. They’ll play both ways. Abejon, Joseph, Armstrong-Reiger, and Kasai will not only catch passes but also look to break them up as well.
“They’re all key guys. They’re going to have to play both ways,” Van Cleave said. “Kanalu Lyman is another linebacker/secondary player. He’s a real athlete. He’ll be at linebacker and the secondary. We’re training him to be a backup QB as well.”
Last season, Keaau’s biggest impediment was beating itself, often committing too many penalties. As a former player, Van Cleave knows that culture plays a huge part in a team’s success.
“When Leo asked me to coach with him, we knew it would be a process,” he said. “It’s all about setting the right culture and building the program. When we played Kealakehe for the BIIF championship, it was about the work ethic. In practice, we worked hard and pushed each other. We set the tone for the underclassmen and showed them it took hard work to be successful.”
Like any team, the Cougars want to win a BIIF title But Van Cleave also returned to the gridiron for one other important thing: He wants to build champions off the field as well.
“We had or parent meeting and there were two big goals,” he said. “AS a coach and teacher, I want us to be successful on the field. But we’re also building character in these guys. When I first started coaching in 2010, I wanted to help the community and change things for the better for the community.”
At a glance
Last season: 2-5 BIIF D-I
Co-coaches: Ian Van Cleave (first season); Leo Abellera (fourth season)
Number to know: 2006 – year Van Cleave graduated from Keaau, which finished BIIF runner-up that year.
Quotable: “He’s all in. He’s a go-getter. He’s level-headed and consistent.”
– Abellera on Van Cleave
BIIF Division I
Aug. 23 vs. Hilo 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 31 at Waiakea 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Konawaena 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Kealakehe 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 vs. Honokaa 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Hilo 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. Kealakehe 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Konawaena 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 vs. Waiakea 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 at Honokaa 7:30 p.