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The Veteran-oriented Lunas

Wednesday, July 27, 2022 | By Nick Abramo

There was nothing truly satisfying for the Lahainaluna football team in 2021, when it reached the Division I state championship game.

For many programs, getting that far is a major accomplishment. Not so fin the minds of the Lunas.

They expect more — from co-head coaches Dean Rickard and Bobby Watson to the veteran players all the way down to those about to make their way into the starting lineup for the first time this fall.

“We could have made history,” Rickard said in a recent cellphone interview.

True. Lahainaluna won four straight D-II state titles leading up to the 2021 campaign, when they moved up to D-I and went on a mission to be the first team to make the transition and go all the way. It didn’t happen. The Lunas were thumped by ‘Iolani 38-0 in the big game.

Lahainaluna co-head coach Dean Rickard

“We were definitely outplayed,” Rickard added. “Our kids really took that game hard. We’ve been meeting up with ‘Iolani in state tournament games a lot (five times since 2007) and we’ve got a rivalry going on. It was a real eye-opener for us to go into that game and see how much more focused and disciplined they were. ‘Iolani was also coming off a loss in the (D-I) state title game to Hilo (20-17 in 2019, just before COVID-19 wiped out the following season) and they had something to prove. Our players thought we had enough and they got to see first-hand that we didn’t have enough. That is what is driving them this year. Now we’re the ones who have something to prove. We’ve seen the best team in the state and can now say, ‘This is what it’s going to take. Let’s get at it.’ ”

One big positive for the Lunas coming into the 2022 season is that they are a much more veteran-oriented squad than they were a year ago. In terms of the cyclical nature of high school football, with teams fluctuating in terms of strength over the four-year period of a typical class of students, the Lunas were at a low point in ’21. In other words, they were young. At least three times in the past few years, Maui News sports reporter Rob Collias has said that Lahainaluna in the 2020 canceled year would have been at that high point in terms of veteran leadership.

By absolutely no means is Rickard and his Lunas looking past any one of the other four MIL teams. Baldwin, their biggest rival, is always tough and Maui has been making big strides in the last few years. Kamehameha-Maui was a highly disciplined outfit in 2021, when the Warriors made it to the D-II state title game only to be flattened by Kapaa 61-7. King Kekaulike has also shown an ability to play spoiler in the tight-knit MIL.

“Our first step is making it through the MIL,” Rickard said. “And it’s going to be pretty competitive. Hopefully, everything comes to fruition and we can get back to the championship.”

Another big change that should benefit the Lunas is the return of Garret Tihada in an official capacity as an assistant coach. The former head coach helped the team in the last few seasons in the booth at games. Now, he is back on the field as the offensive coordinator.

There won’t be many new wrinkles in the Lahainaluna offense, which is a run-oriented unit.

“We’ll run the wildcat, single wing, wing-T, double slot,” Rickard said. “Our philosophy hasn’t changed. We don’t have eye-popping, four-star caliber players. We have players who are competitive at heart and on the smaller side and we get a lot of mileage on misdirection.”

Some key offensive returners are slotback Ian-Jay Cabanilla, fullback Kaulana Tihada, running back Thomas Borges, and linemen Jaysen Akahi-Vida, Morgan Montgomery and Kalaeloa Tancayo. And Rickard expects sophomore Kawika Kaili to make big strides as a lineman, too.

Edge rusher Lance Morikawa Jr., the reigning Maui News MIL defensive player of the year, and Keawe Kane-Keahi, a second-place finisher at 182 pounds in state wrestling in March, are key cogs on the defensive line. Kane-Keahi is coming off a stellar performance at former NFL player and Baldwin alum JoJo Dickson’s camp on Maui earlier this summer. Defensive ends Mauaalina Montgomery and John Kaililaau-Balisco are also primed to make a big impact, according to Rickard.

Other veterans tasked with leading the defense are nose guard Hanalei Kauhaahaa, linebackers Jeremy Kahahane-Lived and Kahi Magno, and defensive backs Kuola Watson and Avery Baybayan.

A big test awaits Lahainaluna, which will take a season-opening trip to the Big Island to play Hilo on Aug. 13. The Vikings finished 4-2 in 2021 and did not advance to states, but they made three D-I state championship game appearances from 2017 through 2019 and won it all twice. A week later, on Aug. 20, the Lunas host Maui in the league opener.

A year ago, the Lunas — who have won 31 straight MIL games and 14 league D-II championships in a row — finished 7-1, with a bitter ending. They want more.

“Starting in January and February, a big core of the team hit the weight room and went to speed and quickness camps,” Rickard said. “We’re ahead of the game in that aspect.”

Returning senior edge rushers John Kaililaau-Balisco, Keawe Kane-Keahi and offensive lineman Jaysen Akahi-Vida

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