HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Seariders' George Kauwalu, left, Chad Duran and David Paaluhi, arguably one of the best group of linebackers in the state, combined to stop Kealakehe running back Gabe Tuata in Waianae's win last week. CLICK FOR LARGE
Seariders stick together
Waianae's linebackers lead the way for a team that is a step away from the state title game
THEY start out as Tigers and become Seariders.
Up and down Farrington Highway, from the hand-painted Kanaka Maoli sign all the way up to Waianae Drive-In (formerly known as Tasty Freeze), there are red-and-blue signs for Tigers and Seariders alike. Waianae Searider football players. Waianae Tiger Pop Warner players.
They start out young, and by the time they become Seariders, Chad Duran says, they're men. Or, they at least have some of the freedom of grown men. They make their choices.
Some are good. Some are iffy. So far, the good has prevailed, and the Waianae Seariders are one win away from playing for a state championship. Waianae, the runner-up from the Oahu Interscholastic Association, is ranked No. 3 in the Star-Bulletin Football Top 10.
The top seed of the state tournament, Saint Louis, awaits on Friday for a semifinal showdown at Aloha Stadium. Waianae, a team with four losses, has traveled quite far to reach this point. Pride and humility were in full force when the Seariders eliminated Kealakehe on Friday. A 28-14 win was their second in two years over Kealakehe in the state quarterfinals.
The Seariders contained Kealakehe's prolific offense and running back Gabe Tuata, a rare neighbor-island prospect, who has verbally committed to UH.
Everywhere the shifty runner went, Waianae's linebackers waited. George Kauwalu. David Paaluhi. Duran. Along with Kaipo Punihaole, they form perhaps the best linebacker corps in the state.
The pride of Waianae also brings a lot of pressure, but the Seariders thrive on expectations.
"It feels good. It's exciting," Kauwalu said. "It gives us confidence, knowing that our community has faith in us."
They also form a crew that stuck together with a little help from its pack leader, defensive coordinator Jason Hussey.
The longtime assistant coach knew what to expect of his 'backers, all of whom he coached on the JV level before moving up to the varsity.
"I knew their potential. They pick up the schemes very well. They're probably one of the best groups since I've been at Waianae," Hussey said. "Their pursuit and speed compensate for other areas of concerns for us."
PAALUHI WAS A QUESTION mark at first. The talented wrestler returned to his hometown school from Kamehameha for one reason.
"I wanted to play for Waianae," he said. "I asked my dad if I could."
Paaluhi -- now 6 feet, 215 pounds -- hadn't played the game since he was a linebacker with the Waianae Tigers.
"I really didn't know what to expect of Dave," Hussey said. "The kid plays in space very well, can make open-field tackles and comes off the edge well."
Paaluhi lines up often as a defensive end, which puts his shedding skills to work.
"He defeats the blockers at the point of attack. He doesn't stay blocked, and that was part of our problem the past couple of years with our linebackers. I think the wrestling helps him tremendously," Hussey noted.
Duran has developed rapidly and took well to a switch with Kauwalu. The 6-foot, 215-pound senior began the season outside, but is now the middle 'backer.
"His strength is his size and speed. He's improved a lot in the past year, but his biggest asset is his hitting ability. He tackles well. He can shed blocks well, has good speed," Hussey said.
"Chad's not scared of anybody," Kauwalu added. "He'll take on anybody. Size doesn't matter to us."
Kauwalu, at 6-foot, 215 pounds, is the heat-seeking missile that has earned him shouts of "Mister Katoosh" as he walks through the hallways of his school. There is more to Kauwalu, who goes by "Keoki" a lot more than his given name, than bone-crunching tackles.
"He's our Mr. Everything. Coachable, communicates well. His knowledge has increased and that makes him a great linebacker now," Hussey said. "When we go through our film meetings and I talk about tendencies, he gets all the check calls down. He's like another coach on the field, and he talks to our guys in games and practice. He takes it upon himself to make sure everybody knows their responsibility."
Another key cog in the rotation is Punihaole, their weakside linebacker.
"Kaipo is our best tackler. Because of his leverage, he's able to tackle well," Hussey said.
The common thread in all of the 'backers, he added, is the way they're trained to react.
"I always tell the them, read slow, then react fast. Our great speed allows us to do that," he said.
Their experience as a group, as well as Paaluhi's fast learning, gives Hussey ample opportunity to tweak coverages and blitzes. Their aggression, controlled and focused, is a force of nature.
"These guys are really hungry for the ball," head coach Daniel Matsumoto said. "It's fun when you don't have to coach those things. These guys were eager to get there."
THE ROCKY SLOPES of the Waianae Mountains have been green for much of the fall. Rain fell early on the coast, both for the terrain and the Seariders.
Last year's resurgence ended with a loss to eventual state champion Kahuku in the semifinals. The promise of a greater finish began with a thud in August, when the Seariders were shellacked by visiting Farrington 37-0.
Kauwalu heard his share of dismay, not just from teammates and coaches, but his classmates.
"After that game, a lot of people started doubting us. Hearing that from people in our school, it hurts," he said.
Less than two weeks before the Farrington game, Waianae still had 80 players on the roster and final cuts were coming. Duran, as well as safety Matthew Ibanez, missed the first four games of the season for breaking a rule in the offseason. They were there every day at practice, working hard, but for Kauwalu and the rest of the unit, filling the void had to be done quickly.
"Oki kinda picked it up from then. Our first game when they were really tested, half our defense were juniors," Hussey said.
Duran learned a valuable lesson.
"It was sickening not to be out there with the team, to help them, but the thing about our team is one guy goes, another guy can fill in," he said. "There's a lot of depth, so there's no hard feelings. If you're not doing your job, you sit."
By the time the Seariders hosted Punahou, one week after Farrington, they were beginning to settle down. Defending Interscholastic League of Honolulu champion Punahou escaped Raymond Torii Field with a 21-12 win.
"After we lost to Farrington, I was shocked," Paaluhi said.
"But we worked hard, came back strong."
Since then, the Seariders have been outstanding. They won their first five games in league play, but after clinching the Red West title, fell to Kapolei. Kauwalu was out with a one-game suspension after breaking a team rule, but returned with a vengeance. Waianae reached the OIA final, and its defense shackled Kahuku, which managed just 152 total yards of offense.
Kahuku took its fourth OIA crown in a row with 7-0 win.
The Seariders have a second life, so to speak, with the state tourney. The season has been a success, and though hopes are high, they know Saint Louis is the solid favorite to win the state crown. There's nothing to lose for a program that had its ups and downs in recent years.
THINGS ARE LOOKING UP right now, but there will be football life after high school for many Seariders.
The linebacker corps, in particular, has quite a future. Hawaii has expressed interest in Paaluhi, who has a 3.5 grade-point average and satisfactory test scores to qualify as an NCAA Division I student-athlete.
Kauwalu and Duran, though, will likely be at a junior college next season.
The choices, as Duran said, were there for him to make. As a freshman, then as a sophomore, Duran and Kauwalu spent too much time on the cell phone and not enough studying.
"Chicks. Girls. I should've stuck my head in the books and done my homework," Duran said.
Girl problems at 14?
"I had girlfriends. Many girlfriends," Duran said of cell-phone conversations that lasted until 5 in the morning. "Now, I study more."
Time travel is not upon us. They can't go back and change the fact that Division I offers are limited due to academic shortcomings. Kauwalu has some concrete advice for any up-and-coming athlete.
"Turn off the cell phone after 8 (p.m.)," he said. "Do all your homework."
"Never mind the girls," Duran added. "Stick your head in the books."
The coaches and mentors in their lives had plenty to say about study habits, but the choices are left with the student-athletes.
"A lot of these kids don't realize how important freshman and sophomore year is," said Hussey, who is a police officer in the traffic division at Waianae.
"Now that scouts are turning up, you figure out where you're at."
For Kauwalu and Duran, instead of offers from prominent Division I schools, the alternative choices are Mount Sac, Saddleback, maybe Grossmont, all JCs.
OF COURSE, WAIANAE has a multitude of heroes on both sides of the ball.
A posse of running backs shares the football. The O-line, including Alex Tupulua, is getting plenty of attention from college recruiters. Receivers like Cranston Newman and Nathan Malaki are as valuable as blockers in Waianae's Wing-T offense as they are as pass-catchers.
Quarterback Ben McQuown has been good and occasionally great. Everything that makes the Seariders go, though, starts with defense. Lineman Fred Ellis has been relentless in his pursuit. Cornerback Preston Ayala had three picks against Kealakehe, giving Waianae 25 this season.
In a division of extremes, from smashmouth running offenses to air-it-out squads, Waianae has been versatile. Teachable. It starts with the linebackers, and Hussey made it a point to get the most out of his seniors, both as players and as examples.
"We brought up a bunch of JV players so they can see the leadership our linebackers project. They really look up to these four and their examples," Hussey said.
"They're very coachable, very hard-nosed kids who love the game of football. They're very knowledgeable and very sincere about other aspects of the game. You can really see their leadership qualities, what they display on the practice field, in the locker room, a silent soldier aspect.
"It's not just shouting all the time. They rose through the ranks and had good linebackers in front of them. They followed the leadership in front of them."
The Tigers have grown up to be Seariders.
"They are mentors," Hussey said, "for the ones coming up."