Lanikai has only 28 crews entered in tomorrow's state championships, so they need the OHCRA champion senior men and other crews to earn points.

Maui’s Hawaiian goes
after a 4-peat

Kai Opua of the Big Island
and a trio of Oahu clubs are
the main obstacles

No need to dust off the abacus, paddling fans.

When the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association State Championships kick off tomorrow morning at Keehi Lagoon, there is a simple reason why Kailua, Kai Opua and three-time defending champion Hawaiian are the heavy favorites to contend for the title: mass volume.

Hawaiian, which won its 20th Maui (MCHCA) championship in a row, will enter crews in 35 of the 37 scheduled races.

"It feels like there's a target on our backs," Hawaiian coach Paul Luuwai said. "We'll give our best effort, and win or lose, we'll be humble."

Luuwai, 41, won't say this is the best season Hawaiian has ever had, but he is fully confident.

"Our men's division (crews) improved. Our kids are solid, and our novices are really good this year," said Luuwai, who has been head coach for 20 seasons. "Our masters are better, but our women dropped off a bit."

That's because three-time Molokai-to-Oahu one-woman kayaking champion Lauren Spalding is a bit busy in Athens with a fairly popular crew known as Team USA.

Even with 35 crews entered, Hawaiian is second to Kai Opua, which has a canoe in every race.

"We're anticipating that we're spotting them 10 to 15 points before the regatta even starts," Luuwai said.

Kailua, which earned a share of the OHCRA championship nearly two weeks ago, will have 34 crews in the event. Kailua was runner-up in the state championships last year.

Kai Opua, guided by Mike Atwood, is poised to make a serious run at the crown. This summer, for the first time, Moku O Hawaii (Big Island) race courses were plotted out with quarter-mile turns, just as the course at the state championships will be.

In addition, the World Sprint Championships, which will be held in Hilo next week, have inadvertently created a better atmosphere for training. On the Big Island, the championships were held three weeks ago, and since, there have only been keiki-themed races.

"The World Sprints are helping us to focus on states," Kai Opua women's paddling coach Beanie Heen said. "Otherwise, it's tough to focus with a three-week break."

Kai Opua finished second at states two years ago. "We were three or four crews short then. Our kids have come a long way since then. That was our weakness before," Heen added.

After the top three, the drop-off in entries is significant. Lanikai has 28 crews signed up. Hui Lanakila registered 26 crews. The two clubs can't be forgotten, however. Lanikai tied Kailua for the OHCRA championship, while Hui Lanakila finished four points behind on that day at Keehi Lagoon.

Hui Nalu (24 crews) and Outrigger (21) round out the AAA Division, which is open to clubs with 18 to 38 entries.

Hawaiian saved its best for the end of the Maui season. Hawaiian amassed 25 crew victories and 152 total points, both association records. That championship win at Kihei, however, was nearly two weeks ago.

One rule change for states will allow paddlers to drop down to the freshmen races. That is the norm at neighbor island regattas, but not so during the OHCRA season.

"We love that rule, but we won't drop our best crew down," Hui Lanakila coach Kalama Heine said.

In the AA and A divisions, there is far more parity, and dominant crews like the Waikiki Beachboys' women freshmen and mixed open 6 are unbeaten.

Hui Wa'a champion Kaneohe, which did not lose an official regatta all summer, is in the AA division. So is Hui Wa'a runner-up Manu O Ke Kai. During the season, both clubs entered well over the 25-crew limit.

The difference between OHCRA and Hui Wa'a, as it has been for ages, is the plain fact that Hui Wa'a clubs use fiberglass canoes through the regular season. The state championships require koa.

"We've been practicing the last two weeks in our koa boat, and our times were similar," Sanborn said.

Lanikai coach Bobby Puakea was prepared to enter his club in the AA division, but his paddlers fared well at OHCRA in the championships.

"If we hadn't qualified this many, we would've dropped down," Puakea said. "It's a long shot, but it's an honor for each crew to go for the gold, silver or bronze."

Here's a look at some of the top entries in the AAA divisions:

Home: Kailua Bay (Kona).
Head coach: Mike Atwood.
Crews: 37.
Skinny: For decades, Kai Opua has been a fixture on the Kona Coast, setting the standard for excellence in paddling. Kai Opua placed third in the state last year. So far this summer, seven of its crews have been unbeaten. The freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior men's and women's crews have been strong, assistant coach Beanie Heen said.
Status: Top contender.

Home: Kahului Harbor.
Head coach: Paul Luuwai.
Crews: 35.
Skinny: Hawaiian qualified 32 crews for states, then added three more when lanes were distributed. Oahu paddling fans have wondered what exactly makes Hawaiian so powerful. Whatever the secret is, it has worked for three titles in a row. It will be a busy Saturday for Maui's keiki paddlers. They fly into Honolulu in the morning, paddle during the day, then fly to Hilo in the evening for the upcoming World Sprints.
Status: Favorite.

Home: Kailua Beach.
Head coach: Jimmy Bruhn.
Crews: 34.
Skinny: By the OHCRA championships, Kailua was hoping to qualify 30 or 31 crews. Now that Kailua has 34 crews entered, the percentages are more viable. Kailua's balance -- plenty of quality youth and adult crews -- is a key for coach Jimmy Bruhn.
Status: Strong contender.

Home: Lanikai Beach.
Head coach: Bobby Puakea.
Crews: 28.
Skinny: Neighborhood rival of Kailua, Lanikai has proved throughout the summer that high finishes and teamwork can negate a shortage of crews. "Our senior and sophomore men have been quite dominant since the first race," Puakea said. "Our kids have been pretty good all year. So have our masters and golden masters, our mixed."
Status: Dark horse.

Home: Ala Wai Canal.
Head coach: Kalama Heine.
Crews: 26.
Skinny: Lanakila was in contention for the OHCRA championship until the very end, losing to Kailua and Lanakila by just four points.
Status: Dark horse.



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