LAHAINA – The smiles on the faces of Jaysen Akahi-Vida and LJ Morikawa told much of the story Tuesday afternoon at Sue Cooley Stadium.
The Lahainaluna High School football team was gearing up for its 12th day of practice, and one of its leading tacklers, Akahi-Vida, was talking stories outside the locker room with Maui Interscholastic League Defensive Player of the Year Morikawa.
“It’s great to be back,” said the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Morikawa, a senior runner. “I was out for a little bit because I got an injury but I’m all recovered from that now, happy to be back with my team, get our team chemistry and work on everything we need to work on, just get better as a team .”
Morikawa suffered second-degree burns on his legs after his shins melted from the heat at a football camp at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in late June.
“It burned my legs and I got like second degree burns and a big blister on each side, but it’s all healed up now.” Morikawa said. “I feel great now.”
Morikawa gives up 50 pounds to Akahi-Vida, a 6-1, 260-pound left tackle, but they battle every day in practice and each gets better because of it.
Such battles occur all over the field as the Lunas go on a MIL-record 31-game league winning streak — they haven’t lost a MIL game since Oct. 15, 2016, when Baldwin beat them 19-13.
“It helps us because they’re really big, tough competition.” Morikawa said to go against his teammates on the offensive line. “When we go head-to-head every day, it’s the best against the best, so D-line, O-line head-to-head, we’re just constantly getting better, working on new moves. Yes, it’s just wonderful.”
Akahi-Vida saying that he will officially practice in early August for the first time since 2019 due to the pandemic is special.
“It feels good, we compete with each other every day – he’s not on the tables yet, but when he comes back on the tables, we always compete, everyone, even Keawe (Kane-Keahi)” said Akahi-Vida. “The whole D-line and O-line, we’re always trying to improve ourselves every day. We make each other better.
“I would say our defensive line is really fast compared to other defensive lines we’ve gone to, but when they’re a big challenge, that really helps us.”
Lahainaluna co-coach Dean Rickard has grown a long beard following his recent retirement from the Maui Police Department — he plans to play Santa Claus for his five grandchildren — and said his team is focused after losing 38 -0 against Iolani. in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division I state championship game in December.
Last year, the Lunas, like the rest of the state’s public schools, began the practice and then had to stop and restart after a six-week break dictated by the state Department of Education over COVID-19 protocols.
“I think for the kids and the coaches, if that uncertainty doesn’t make it that much better for everybody, we’re able to focus on the job at hand.” said Rickard. “For the kids, they understand that the season is going to happen and not a shortened season, it’s going to be a full season.”
The Lunas will play a preseason game for the first time since 2019 when they travel to Hilo to face the Vikings on August 13. They were also part of a three-way sweep Saturday at King Kekaulike Stadium that included Na Ali and Maui High.
“We were lucky enough they invited us and it was a great opportunity for us as coaches as well as players to get a feel for putting the pieces of the puzzle together.” said Rickard. “So, a big opportunity. The children are excited. You could tell, even Maui High, their coaches were excited. King K, they were looking really good too.”
Rickard said he saw some big linemen for both the Sabers and Na Alii.
“I’m not so sure, but whatever water they have on the other side, it doesn’t carry over to this side because they have something special over there, no doubt, both King K and Maui High.” said Rickard. “It was a good fight.”
Rickard said 38-0 still stings. That loss ended an 18-game overall streak and a 10-0, five-season streak in the state tournament that included four straight Division II titles.
“It’s almost like unfinished business for many of the returnees,” said Rickard. “That’s how we’re trying to approach it and treat it as such.”
Former co-head coach Garret Tihada has returned as the team’s offensive coordinator after a three-year absence.
“So you can expect the same old from what we’ve been running anyway, because we’ve never been beaten at all when he’s taken a little break, for the last three years.” said Rickard. “Now, everything is fine. He’s retired like me, so we have some time to spend with football and work on the season. But, yes, we are looking forward to the season.
“I think 38-0, it’s not that much, but it’s a good control because going up against Iolani, we’ve had a rivalry with them for years.”
Rickard said the message to the young team returning after the state championship loss was simple.
“It’s weighing heavily on their mind, but at the same time, it was a lot of learning that, ‘Hey, in order to get to that level, we’ve got to put in that work in the offseason to make sure that we we can focus enough to get to that level'” said Rickard.
Junior quarterback Noa Gordon, who was 25-for-42 passing for 601 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in MIL play last season, is currently in a three-way battle for the starting QB spot.
Ian-Jay Cabanilla (55 carries, 566 yards, 4 TDs) and Kaulana Tihada (83-411, 8 TDs) each return after finishing 1-2 on the MIL rushing list last season.
Rickard said there are 45 to 47 players set to play on the varsity team and 20 to 25 on the junior varsity.
Linebacker Kahi Magno, running back Mauaalina Montgomery and defensive tackle Kawika Kaili are all back as sophomores after making big contributions as freshmen last year.
“I think a lot of the underclassmen coming back this year understand what’s needed. said Rickard. “That’s our job as coaches to make sure we stay on that path. … These kids are ready, they’re hungry.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIL preseason football games
Friday, August 12
Maui High vs. Nanakuli at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m
Saturday, August 13
Kamehameha Hawaii at Kamehameha Maui, 6 p.m
Waimea at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m
Theme vs. Hilo at Wong Stadium, 6 p.m
Baldwin in Kauai, time TBA