‘Never give up’
Waipahu coach Sean Saturnio has given his team a reason to believe
he message was clear, but rooted in polluted soil.
When Sean Saturnio checked his family's answering machine a few nights ago, an anonymous caller claimed that the Waipahu football coach was in the wrong. By disciplining half of his team for breaking rules, it was Saturnio who was in violation, the caller said.
Worse yet, Saturnio's children heard the caller's misguided rambling. Then again, in a world where youth grow up at warp speed, it may have been a good thing that they fully understand who their father is and what he represents.
It just ain't easy being a coach these days.
More than two weeks ago, approximately half of the Waipahu Marauders football team broke team rules. No capital offenses. Certainly, though, they got involved in shenanigans that Saturnio and his staff had warned against time and time again.
The rule-breakers stepped forward and admitted their mistakes last week. With the squad pruned in half by a one-game suspension, the Marauders faced the daunting task of playing Moanalua with a roster of 22 players.
They remained undeterred, pumped up to face another big challenge in a season of struggle.
Homecoming week would not be tainted. But an injury to a player, plus a few academic casualties, dropped Waipahu to a lineup of just 19 players. That was one below the administration's minimum.
"It came down to the health and safety of our kids," athletic director Hartwell Lee Loy said. "We only have six linemen (this week), and they play both ways. And the majority of the kids suspended are first- and second-teamers. We didn't want to penalize the kids who have followed the rules, but it came down to numbers."
The homecoming game with Moanalua was forfeited. Then came the anonymous phone call, along with lots of discussion, support and questioning. Saturnio, who teaches on the Waipahu campus, heard it all. Saturnio is steady as a rock.
"I'm just surprised they didn't hang me in effigy," he said.
For the 22 remaining players who didn't break rules, the forfeiture was unprecedented. Joe Batangan, the senior class president, also plays linebacker and fullback. He heard about the decision through the grapevine, two days before the Moanalua game.
It was almost impossible to believe for Batangan, who suffered an MCL injury early in the season and had rehabbed to return just recently.
"It sucked, big time. Everybody got mad at first, like why does (Saturnio) have to do that? Just let us play," he recalled. "I wanted to play in our last homecoming game. All of us seniors did."
The sacrifice they were willing to pay would have been too steep.
"I didn't mind going in with 19 guys, but the deal was had to have at least 20. But I didn't care about that," the 5-foot-4, 166-pounder said.
"I wouldn't mind playing line at all if they needed me there," he said.
Instead of a game, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona met with both teams on Friday, sharing his viewpoint about doing the right thing.
"That helped our guys realize that choices in life don't solely affect you alone," Saturnio said. "Ever."
In the week since the forfeiture decision, Batangan and his teammates have begun to accept the wisdom behind it all.
"I guess now I'm OK with it. It was the (suspended) players' decision to do what they did. Coach is going by his word. He has to do what he has to do," Batangan said.
Waipahu may have one of the largest enrollments in the state, but Saturnio understands why the football team had a relatively low turnout.
"Is there talent on campus? There would be 300 guys if we didn't value being a family. We'd have to fight them off with sticks," Saturnio said. "But there wouldn't be commitment. They wouldn't want to be role models."
That's why he enforced the team rules. Saturnio could not let his players down.
"What kind of love ends when they leave practice at 7 p.m.?" Saturnio asked. "God's always called us to do things. I need to spend the rest of my life fixing the things I did as a youth. I called my mom once and apologized to her. I never realized I was doing anything to hurt her until I got older.
"I don't want these guys to wait 30 years to know that."
The ride has been turbulent, a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Saturnio guided the Marauders to a 6-2 record and a playoff berth in his first season. Since then, there has been a mix of success on the football field.
Of all people, Lee Loy, who saw a multitude of success during his time at Kahuku, could be impatient. However, he continues to fully support Saturnio because of what he sees off the field. Saturnio appreciates the support 100 percent.
"I told our guys, this is my most successful year. The guys who broke the rules, they stepped up as men and told me about it. They owned up," he said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow, but that's how medicine can be sometimes."
What some of his formerly suspended players may not know is that their coach went to bat for them big time. The administration considered removing the players permanently until Saturnio sat down and pleaded on their behalf.
"Coach Sean fought for the guys to keep them on the team," Batangan noted. "I think they do see what he's trying to do for them. They don't complain about the suspension. They owned up to it."
When the Marauders face Kalaheo on Saturday at Kapolei's field, their symbolic "black flag" will remain intact.
"Some people who broke the rules said sorry. Some people who didn't make the mistake said to the boys, 'Don't worry, we'll try our best.' There wasn't really any hate toward anybody," Batangan said.
"We stayed together and didn't fall apart. Our motto, Black Flag, is 'Never give up.' "