Na Alii ready for turnaround

PUKALANI – For a team that owns just four league wins in the last three seasons, the outlook is bright for King Kekaulike High School football.

Kyle Sanches is on board as the third coach in three seasons, with a squad that includes the Maui Interscholastic League’s passing leader from 2012, left-handed junior Ryley Widell, and has a new enthusiasm despite coming off back-to-back 1-7 MIL campaigns.

“This year, coach Kyle, he’s a great guy,” Widell said before practice Thursday. “He’s pushing us hard and we’re ready.”

Widell passed for 881 yards last year, 335 more than anyone else in the league, even as some key players missed most of the season with injuries. Widell also ran for 73 yards while avoiding oncoming rushers who knew Na Alii wanted to throw the ball – altogether, he accounted for 67.5 percent of Na Alii’s offensive production.

This fall, running back Jay Braun is back from a knee injury that limited him to just 10 carries last year, and Joshua Ogata returns from a season-ending rotator cuff tear that held him to six catches in 2012 after recording 21 as a freshman in 2011.

“We are going to be good this year, we have a lot of talent,” Wi-dell said. “We are strong, mentally strong, and we have a lot of speed. I’m really excited, I can’t wait for the season to start. We are going to be a challenging team.”

Widell smiled when asked about his offensive line.

“Oh yeah, for sure they are better – a lot of time back in the pocket,” he said.

Widell will operate out of a spread system, “which is conducive to the type of athletes we have,” Sanches said.

“On defense, we will be a 3-4, 3-5 team, which again is based on the athletes that we have,” Sanches added.

Ramsey Crenshaw will be one of the blockers for Widell at offensive tackle, and start at defensive end.

“Lots of excitement, everybody’s got a better pep in their step than in years before,” Crenshaw said. “Everybody’s got a lot of faith in the coaching staff and the players.”

Braun is one of the top sprinters in the state, while Charles Apuna and Austin Ferreira also bring speed. Apuna had six receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown last season. Ferreira caught five passes for 144 yards and two scores.

“We will be speed-laden and athlete-driven,” Sanches said. “Ryley has come a long way, we have another kid who is pushing him in Kawika Homalon. The two are actually battling for the position right now. It has been a healthy competition. They have got one more week to figure it out before we go up against Kamehameha (Maui) across the street.”

Sanches said King Kekaulike’s scrimmage two days ago – a 37-14 loss to Kamehameha Hawaii on the Big Island – was an audition for several spots. The roster of 40 is still in flux going into Na Alii’s league opener at Kanaiaupuni Stadium on Saturday.

“We are treating it much like an NFL preseason (game) where everybody can get a rep,” Sanches said. “Everybody will be evaluated. Quarterback is not the only position where we have some healthy competition going on. We want to give those kids some equal reps, the kids who are on the bubble for a No. 1 spot or a No. 2 spot. We need to get a healthy evaluation of the players that we do have.”

Ogata’s return will also bolster the defensive secondary.

“Defensively Ramsey and Josh are going to be two kids that we really lean on to get that spark from,” Sanches said.

The bottom line for Sanches is that this is a new King Kekaulike football team.

“We are still trying to change that culture, we have had a lot of turnover in the past – that is making things difficult right now,” he said. “The athletes that are here, the athletes that are part of this program, they do believe as much as we do.”

* Robert Collias is at