Seniors keep hitting for finale
The HUB Goodwill Senior Bowl caps prep football season
December is a long way from the scorching heat and unbearable humidity of August.
Still, they plod away, banging heads and firing aerial spirals through the night. The HUB Goodwill Senior Bowl is just a day away, which means practice is full of sprints, clanging helmets and late-night travel across the island for dozens of invitees.
As practice came to a close after 8 p.m. on Wednesday, the West squad lounged on the 20-yard line at Kunuiakea Stadium. Not only did they get to practice at the site of the game, which kicks off tonight at 7:30, but they are a heavy favorite thanks to a lineup dotted with top Oahu Interscholastic Association Red West standouts, and stars from two of the three Division I schools in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
The West team, sitting and waiting patiently, collects free T-shirts from the game's sponsor. The mood is light as the stadium lights shine bright at the Kamehameha campus. They're good, and they know it. Even coach Kanani Souza is laid back, almost effervescent.
"I'm enjoying this," said Souza, who will retire from coaching after this season to focus on his new duties as athletic director at Kamehameha.
On the other side of the Koolau Mountains, the East squad is working late into the night. Nine o'clock ticks and practice is still at full tilt. Maybe it's because they know the West is favored. Perhaps there's a sense of urgency for a squad loaded with players who didn't get a chance to play in the state tourney, standout players from Pac-Five and Damien, McKinley and Castle, and more.
The field is muddy, the air is crisp and there are only a dozen or so fans watching. That's at least half the number who watched at Kunuiakea.
On the field, though, intensity is high and adrenaline is flowing. Coach Nelson Maeda and his staff run the offensive and defensive units through situational scenarios, like first and goal at the 4-yard line. The defense rocks the offense as four defenders, including Sam Fehoko (6-foot-1, 230) of Farrington and Alika Vaiese (6-1, 265) of Pac-Five maul a running back, then roll over him. This series ends with a stop and follows with a lot of whooping and hollering.
Moments later, an East quarterback heaves consecutive touchdowns to Jordan Ho-Ching, Pac-Five's versatile senior. Redemption for the offense, and practice ends with a few run-throughs of warm-up jumping jacks.
Not only is the East an underdog, but some top defensive players are missing. Kahuku anchors Kaniela Tuipulotu and Nai Fotu aren't in the game. The East is approaching the matchup with a desire to prove this will not be a cakewalk for the West.
"We've made our team very aware that the East has lost the last three," Maeda said. "We told them that we'll treat them like our own team and get away from that all-star mentality. It's about representing your school and your community."
As always, there are a lot of players who have been watched closely by college recruiters since Senior Bowl practice began more than a week ago. The athletes on the bubble have something to prove, but for every potential NCAA Division I player, there is another who is not a qualifier and will take the circuitous junior-college route.
For some players, the game is a life-changing experience, or at the very least, a fond memory of high school.
Kaiser's Jake Esteban and Brice Kahalewai, expect to play at the next level, whether it's a four-year school or a JC.
"They're good guys. Funny guys. All of 'em are laid back, but disciplined," said Kahalewai, 6-foot, 265-pound center. "Everybody's got better technique."
Esteban, who played wide receiver and defensive back for the Cougars, is in a battle.
"It's more competitive. It's a fight for positions," the 5-11, 160 pounder said.
For Kaimuki defensive end Keone Reyes, the Senior Bowl is one more chance to put on the pads.
"This is cool. We're like one big family," said Reyes, who played on a Kaimuki team that suited up as many as 26 players. "This is the biggest team I've been on. Ever."