Bears could face tough test
WAILUKU – The Maui Interscholastic League Division I football championship has been the exclusive property of Baldwin High School since 2005.
If the Bears are to push their streak of state tournament appearance to 10, they know it won’t be without a fight from up-and-coming Maui High.
“We feel like the title belongs here,” Baldwin senior linebacker Nohea Keahi said at practice last week. “They are going to have to take it away from us, but we will be ready for that.”
Taje Akaka-Foster, a junior, is the quarterback after seeing some action at the position last season, including the start in a 21-3 loss to Farrington in the state tournament.
Akaka-Foster remembers the dual-threat capabilities of three-time MIL Offensive Player of the Year Keelan Ewaliko, now a University of Hawaii redshirt freshman.
“I always wanted to be like him, but at the same time I want to take his name away,” Akaka-Foster said. “He has been away from Baldwin for two years, so we want to make our own memories.”
Akaka-Foster said the goals haven’t changed in Wailuku.
“We are playing for the title, for sure,” he said.
The 6-foot, 170-pound quarterback listed Dane Elf, Laakea Kahoohanohano-Davis and Maui High transfer Chazzaniel Sau as being among his favorite targets so far in fall camp.
“We are on the same page, we know what to do,” Akaka-Foster said. “And I just leave it up to the line, too. They have been doing really good.”
Second-year coach Keneke Pacheco likes what he has in his signal-caller.
“Taje has come in this year and really taken the quarter-back position seriously,” Pacheco said. “He has been working hard all offseason, in the weight room, in the classroom. He has given a good hands-on approach to what it takes to be a quarterback at the varsity level.
“He is taking the leadership role, in the huddle, on the field, off the field, in the weight room. He is doing a great job.”
In the next sentence, Pacheco said Keahi is a key, following in the footsteps of former standout Baldwin linebackers JoJo Dickson, Kaluka Maiava and Teva Eldredge.
“He is one of our main captains,” the coach said. “He’s one of those potential guys. He’s being our voice on the field and he’s taking the role seriously.”
Pacheco is the third head coach to be part of the MIL D-I title streak.
“Last year, I think we had a good start in laying the foundation,” Pacheco said. “This year, we implemented a lot of things for the offseason, trying to play football from February to November, trying to get ourselves ready. Last year was a good year, this year feels more like this is my team.”
Baldwin lost transfers Josiah Maglente-Tonu, a former quarterback who is now a defensive lineman at Saint Louis School, and offensive lineman Miki Fifita, who moved to Florida.
“We have undergone some big changes,” Pacheco said Baldwin has a 60-player roster, though Pacheco said just 37 will be eligible for Saturday’s opener against Southern California power Edison in a nonleague game.
That will force double duty for several Bears, at least early in the season, including linemen Kaumana Garcia and Tevita Lotulelei-Wilhelm, Kahoohanohano-Davis in the defensive secondary and Keahi, who will play some running back.
Offensive threat Nawai Ah Yen returned from the Senior League World Series baseball tournament Monday.
“We have different things going on, I have got kids still doing their three-day running (conditioning) drills, I have kids that are still playing baseball,” Pacheco said. “So, it is coming together slowly. Eventually as the season goes on, we can put some (other) guys into starting roles.”
Pacheco said his team may have been hurt more than most by the cancellation of last weekend’s nonleague openers due to weather concerns.
The first-round game between the Sabers and Bears, the MIL’s only D-I teams, is on Aug. 29.
“We’re doing what we can,” Pacheco said. “This (Edison) game is going to be a gauging game for us. We are going to see where we go from there, what adjustments we need to make for the following week when we play Maui High.”
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com