HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
With his tough-love approach, Waipahu football Sean Saturnio is making men out of the Oahu Interscholastic Association champion Marauders.
The flag flies above it all
Waipahu is the OIA D-II champ after last season's headaches and adversity
EARLY morning is when Mr. Balais rubs the makapiapia out of his eyes and checks the clock. He rises.
The tie. The shirt. The dress pants. The shoes. They're all on in almost no time. He cleans up and hits the road. By 7:15 a.m. yesterday, he was back in air-conditioned confines with more than 30 other men. There are strategies to coordinate, data to study and reports to submit.
By the end of the meeting, they disperse to their daily responsibilities, only a few hours away from their next meeting at noon. Meetings upon meetings, brainstorms followed by spirals that hail from the sky when they gather again that afternoon.
The life of a Waipahu Marauder never ends, it seems. Mr. Balais, 252 pounds packed on a 5-foot-9 frame, will lament the day it all stops. There is only one time in a man's life to carry the Black Flag at the historic campus.
When Rodney Balais marches through the streets of his neighborhood, the flag waves from his soul. In his lean 17 years, there was a choice to make: The Black Flag or the streets.
The black flag was raised up by coach Sean Saturnio, still waving strong after seven years of sunshine and stormy weather.
"If we didn't have Coach Sean, I think more than half the team would be in gangs or be druggies," Balais said.
Choosing football at Waipahu isn't easy. Instead of a squad of 70 or 80 players from a campus of more than 2,000 students, Balais is one of less than 35 players. The brotherhood is empowering, but with power comes responsibility. Balais chose the flag.
That choice turned into a brutal test of character one year ago. Mistakes were made, rules were broken, and instead of taking the easy way out, he was one of many Marauders who faced the firing squad, so to speak, rather than go into hiding.
When one suffers, all suffer, and Mr. Balais felt the anger and scorn of an entire campus, as did all his teammates. But on this morning, as it is three mornings every week, he rubs his eyes awake, and is a Marauder once again.
After last week's 22-6 win over Kaimuki, Balais is still just another Marauder.
An Oahu Interscholastic Association champion Marauder.
A LEAGUE CROWN, 7-2-2 record and state-tournament berth were earned, not given. Saturnio made it a point to prepare more than ever this year, for everything imaginable.
"We're ready for everything," quarterback Gil Fernandez said. "So much more than before. In the Kaimuki game, we ran plays we didn't practice all week. We have the same vibe as before, but things are faster now 'cause guys know more. We didn't have to start the season from scratch."
The parents who bemoaned Saturnio's disciplinary approach have quieted. The parents who applauded Saturnio's consistency are smiling.
"The real fans are the parents," Fernandez said. "The real fans were there for us."
There's no bitterness or false pride about it all. The Marauders want the community to be one. Better late than never.
"Last year," Fernandez recalled, "I'd ask people, 'You coming to the game?' They'd say, 'Why, you guys are only gonna lose.' This year, they're asking me, 'When's the game? Where's it gonna be?' "
THERE ARE MERCY RULES. A football team takes a 35-point lead and upon the ensuing kickoff, the clock never stops, not for penalties, incomplete passes or more touchdowns by the team in front.
Then there is mercy as a rule. When half of the team broke a rule last year, Saturnio and his team knew their season of struggle had taken a turn for the worse. A season of promise was winding down with a 1-5 record when the news hit. With half of his team suspended for one game, the team was down to 19 players, an inadequate total for the school's administrators. The Marauders' homecoming game with first-place Moanalua was forfeited.
The campus soured on the players. Not everyone gave the boys a thumbs-down, but there were questions. Then more questions. Even on-campus teacher Saturnio, along with his all-faculty staff, was questioned by his peers. For his young players, the not-so-funny jokes about their win-loss record turned into outright disrespect. For Saturnio, there were even harsh phone calls and an anonymous voice-mail caller who berated him for applying any discipline during homecoming week.
Instead of folding, the Marauders turned inward. They faced each other. Rule breakers were sorry for their bad choices. The innocent players held on to their brothers in arms, refusing to let go. Saturnio pleaded with administration to let him handle the discipline rather than allow harsher penalties for the rule breakers.
Saturnio stood by his standards, both in consequences for errors and mercy for the seemingly unforgiven.
The Marauders have yet to forget.
"Coach Sean really cares about our futures," quarterback Gil Fernandez said. "And about doing the right things 'cause one day we'll be fathers.
"He's like a second father to us."
BALAIS WILL KICK empty beer bottles out of the way as he marches to school. Every day, he can't ignore where he comes from.
"There's too much stuff in Waipahu, especially with ice. Drugs. Gangs. In our program, we're closer to the coaches now than we were three, four years ago," said Balais, who hopes to mentor kids as a Big Brother one day.
The early-morning meetings separate the Marauders from most football programs or clubs. The navigational tools are freely given. Love is freely given, the kind that places grace above retribution.
"Some guys come from tough families," defensive back Steven Berndt said. "Coming to school and practice is like heaven to them. I'm an only child. I never experienced having brothers and sisters. That's why I love being around these guys.
"They're my brothers."
HE HAS cried alone. Cried in front of his coaches and players. Saturnio doesn't stop just because a reporter or TV camera is nearby. He hears what his players say about faith, about sacrifice for one another, and he chokes up. It is the only way to silence a man with a thousand proverbs.
On a quiet afternoon before practice, he stands in his classroom and thinks of his town.
"Maybe we're the match that sparks a renaissance in our community," Saturnio said.
The homemade pies from neighbors, the handshaking at Foodland, they mean a lot to him, but he doesn't forget the loneliness of last year. He simply forgives, again and again.
His mind is on the state tourney, the opening-round game at Kamehameha-Hawaii, but he lives in the moment, a Marauder whisperer of sorts. It's enough that many of his players, such as the aforementioned co-captains, share his message. It means a little more that they achieve good grades and aspire to attend college. The legacy they are leaving is priceless.
"I need this program as much as the kids do," he confessed. His staff is small, each coach responsible for at least two positions. They began as men of hope, learning X's and O's along the way. Priority one remains the same.
"I didn't really know my father until after high school, when we could actually talk. I never knew the depth and pain of his life," Saturnio said of mending their relationship. "I'm not saying to go hugging trees.
"But it's OK to say, 'I love you.' "