By ROBERT COLLIAS
LAHAINA — The King Kekaulike High School paddling team competed in Saturday’s final Maui Interscholastic League regatta under the guidance of 21-year-old coach Kekupaa Naeole.
Naeole, a 2005 graduate of the Upcountry school, took the job as acting coach from his father, Iokepa Naeole, who stepped down Friday when he
e-mailed a letter of resignation to athletic director Kurtis Saiki and principal Susan Scofield.
Iokepa Naeole resigned in protest of what he said was a Department of Education ruling that former Na Alii coach Paul Kauhane Luuwai not have any contact with the school’s paddlers. Luuwai is a 27-year veteran keiki coach for Hawaiian Canoe Club, the seven-time defending Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association champion, and works at the HCC hale at Kahului Harbor on weekday afternoons.
King Kekaulike is one of four teams that practices at Kahului Harbor, and one of two schools that uses HCC facilities to do so.
Iokepa Naeole took over the King Kekaulike head coaching job last season from Luuwai, who was suspended with pay from his physical education teaching job at the school, and coaching paddling and the girls water polo team, in 2006. Luuwai declined to comment on the reason for his suspension, citing the advice of his lawyers, but said Saturday at Hanakaoo (Canoe) Beach Park that he was reinstated as a teacher at Kekaulike in November 2007 after a 19-month suspension.
Efforts by The Maui News to reach Scofield, Saiki and Maui Schools Superintendent Bruce Anderson failed Saturday. None were in attendance at the regatta.
‘‘I am just disappointed in how I am being treated and perceived by the school officials,’’ Luuwai said. ‘‘I don’t know what I can tell you, really. I was not an official coach. I am an employee of Hawaiian Canoe Club. I facilitate equipment usage, I give guidance to the coaches, advice, but all of these kids are my kids from Hawaiian. I just feel that I don’t have the energy to fight the system again after what I went through for 19 months.’’
Luuwai said he was called Thursday morning to Scofield’s office, where he said he was told by Scofield and Anderson not to have any contact with the Kekaulike paddlers.
‘‘I resigned in protest to the decision that was made to remove what has been the driving force behind Kekaulike’s paddling team even before it was an official state (high school) sport,’’ Iokepa Naeole said Saturday. ‘‘Kauhane has been pushing to get this sport sanctioned, pushing the kids out there at the high school level. All that he has done for paddling on Maui is just erased with these, whatever, allegations from last year that were never actually proven.’’
Kekupaa Naeole, a member of the school’s state championship mixed crew in 2004 under Luuwai and a 10-time state champion in the summer club season, said that his first day as acting head coach was emotional. Kekupaa Naeole, who said he had not talked to Saiki before the regatta, was an assistant to Iokepa Naeole, along with Ryan Grasa, before Friday.
‘‘It was overwhelming,’’ Kekupaa Naeole said. ‘‘I am always kind of a behind-the-scenes type of guy. My job was in the water with the kids. My dad was in favor of me stepping in and I will be relying on his advice.’’
The King Kekaulike paddlers held up several signs in support of Luuwai on Saturday, and many said they consider him their coach.
The signs included ones saying ‘‘We Need Our Coach,’’ ‘‘Give us our amazingly loved and best coach back’’ and ‘‘We want coach Kauhane Luuwai back.’’
‘‘Basically the truth is, (Luuwai) trained us, that is why we win, the only reason we had a chance at winning,’’ King Kekaulike senior steersman Akua Po said after Na Alii boys wrapped up the MIL crown in their division. ‘‘He is the best coach out there and I don’t know how we could win without him.’’
Po said the timing of the news, which the paddlers learned about Thursday afternoon, hurt. Po said that the team considered not competing on Saturday.
‘‘Really, politically standing, we are paddling under duress for lack of our coach,’’ Po said. ‘‘(Not paddling) was an idea to protest, but we paddle for pride and he would want us to go out there and compete, even for the last race.’’
Po said two meetings took place Friday at the school between paddlers and school administrators. One in the morning included most of the team and vice principal Anthony Jones, Po said. Another in the afternoon was between team spokespersons Po and Tiana Kaauamo and Jones, Saiki and Scofield, Po said.
‘‘We were told nothing besides ‘he can’t coach,’ ’’ Po said. ‘‘There were no details given whatsoever. I think if they are going to take our coach away we should have the right to know why. They didn’t really have anything to say other than that it is confidential. We told them, ‘It is in your hands — we need our coach for states and that is the bottom line.’ ’’
The state championship regatta is Feb. 29 at Keehi Lagoon on Oahu, and Na Alii have qualified in all three divisions — boys, girls and mixed.
Iokepa Naeole has known Luuwai since they competed against each other in MIL football in the 1970s — Luuwai for St. Anthony and Naeole for Maui High. Iokepa Naeole took over after Luuwai was the King Kekaulike paddling coach for the first five years of its existence, from 2002 to 2006. Luuwai led the school to 11 of the 15 MIL titles in that span.
‘‘It seems like the system is letting down its employees even though the employee has proven himself year after year after year,’’ Iokepa Naeole said. ‘‘It was really hard, but you know, we are lucky we have Kekupaa and Grasa in place already. I’m his dad, so I will be advising him, regardless. At this point it could go on autopilot and these guys could go over to the states and do well.
‘‘I just have to make the statement that it reflects badly on me as well when someone I have been associated with for years and years and years … that hurts me as well. I just have to stand with the person I trust.’’
Po said he is hopeful Luuwai will be allowed to return.
‘‘Oh yeah, I’m optimistic,’’ ’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully they will realize that they are destroying a team right before the state competition and they will wake up. Could you imagine if they did that to the football team? There would be an outrage. We are as big a sport as any other; we should be treated fairly.’’