PUKALANI -Expectations are growing for the Kamehameha Schools Maui football team.
In coach Kevin O'Brien's third year at the helm, the Warriors bring back six starters on offense, including senior quarterback Kalai Yap, the third-leading passer in the Maui Interscholastic League and a second-team All-Star last season.
The defense returns five starters from a unit that was third against the run in the MIL a year ago.
Makoa Medeiros and the Kamehameha Schools Maui football team will play in this year’s Maui Interscholastic League opener on Friday against Maui High.
RILEY YAP photo
The varsity roster is also up to 53 players and O'Brien said it is the speediest collection the Warriors have assembled during his time on the Pukalani campus.
"From top to bottom, we are the fastest group we have had because it is an older team," O'Brien said. "This is a senior-heavy team, we have a lot of kids who run track, we have a lot kids who play basketball and we have some kids who play baseball. We have a lot of athletic kids who can run."
Practice on Thursday was a spirited affair.
The Maui News will preview each of the Maui Interscholastic League's five football teams this week, heading into the start of regular-season play on Friday. Today, a look at Kamehameha Maui:
2011 record: 3-6 overall, 3-5 MIL
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
DAY BY DAY
Maui High vs. Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Lahainaluna vs. King Kekaulike at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
St. Louis vs. Baldwin at Aloha Stadium (nonleague), 7 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 31
Lahainaluna vs. Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 1
Baldwin vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium,
"We have terrific kids here, that is what makes it so great working here," O'Brien said. "I am very excited for this group of kids. They have really put in a terrific effort in the offseason. I am very proud of those efforts and very excited to see how those efforts pay off."
The Warriors spotted defending state Division II runner-up Kapaa a 13-0 lead in their lone preseason game on Saturday, but rallied to tie the score. It remained 13-13 until Kapaa scored twice in the final four minutes for a 27-13 victory.
Kamehameha starts the MIL season against Maui High on Friday night at War Memorial Stadium. The two teams split their games last season.
"This is an excellent league," said O'Brien, who declines to make his players available to the media and does not discuss individuals by name. "We have excellent coaches in this league, we have very, very good players on every team. I think every school is going to be up this year. It is going to be very challenging. I just really believe in our kids and I know that they have great things football-wise in them."
Makoa Medeiros and Stephen Barut, who was 10th in the league in rushing last season with 209 yards and a 5.1 yards per carry, shared the tailback spot in the single-back offense against Kapaa. Pono Freitas saw double duty at defensive back and slot receiver. Iain Armitage, Devonte Llanes, and Sage Edrada have been sharing the other slot position and the wide outs are Billy Ayakawa and Jamal Jones, who had five catches last year.
Defense may be where the Warriors are able to make the biggest strides, led by the linebacker corps. The inside linebackers are Amos Keawekane and Taylor Kaaukai, while the outside linebackers are Cal Alexander and Quinn Kihune.
Rusty Hue Sing and Siaosi Ngalu lead the defensive line. Freitas and Tyler MacArthur are the cornerbacks.
Last season, Kamehameha's defense was last against the pass.
There are 25 seniors on the roster and seven of them began their varsity careers when O'Brien became head coach.
"I think they feel more comfortable, there is always a feeling-out period early on," O'Brien said. "We have a corps group of seniors who have been with me, seven kids who have played varsity for three seasons and we have two or three others who came up halfway through their sophomore year, so they have been around."
That kind of foundation gives O'Brien confidence.
"They have been around me, they have been around our coaching staff, they have been around (defensive coordinator Anthony) Perry, so they know the lingo, they know the vocabulary, they know the jargon," O'Brien said. "I think there is a level of comfort with that. I would say definitely, this is by far the most experienced team I have had."
Hard work leads to success, O'Brien said, and there is no better place for an example to be set than from the top.
"I think our kids understand that you have to play this game without anybody worrying about who gets the credit," O'Brien said. "That is the mindset that I have tried to have with our team. I believe, and I know that is going to manifest itself this season."
King Kekaulike has joined Lahainaluna and Kamehameha in the MIL Division II ranks. The Lunas advanced to the D-II state semifinals last season and have won the last five MIL D-II titles. Kamehameha won its only league football crown in 2005 when it was in the D-II state semifinals.
"I think it is going to be extremely difficult," O'Brien said of winning the MIL's D-II state berth. "Lahainaluna, as you know, I admire highly. I think their coaching staff is outstanding. I think Kekaulike is going to be better - I have a lot of respect for their program."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com