Sabers try to stay grounded

KAHULUI – David Bui knows all about the speculation.

The Maui High School football coach is working hard to temper the popular talk that his team is the favorite to win the Maui Interscholastic League Division I championship and break a 13-year absence from the state tournament.

At 6-4 overall and 4-4 in the MIL, the Sabers took a big step in the right direction last season, compiling their first winning season since going 7-3 in 2003.

“Yeah, I have heard the rumors,” Bui said at practice last week. “We have been hearing it and we are just trying to keep (the players’) heads out of the clouds. There were times this offseason where we felt like they were looking a little too far ahead of where we need to be.”

Along with directing weight-room work, conditioning and spring drills, the Maui High coaches have had other duties since last season ended.

“We have spent some time this offseason just trying to bring everybody back to Earth and focus on the task at hand,” Bui said. “And that is just working hard to get better.”

To garner the lone MIL berth in the D-I state tournament, the Sabers will likely have to break a 26-game losing streak to nine-time defending champion Baldwin – a skid that dates back to 2000, the last time Maui High was in the tournament.

“Anything short of the MIL title is going to be a huge disappointment,” Bui said. “We know that there are worthy teams out there. Baldwin and Lahainaluna will still be tough, but I feel we have got potential, too.”

The Sabers have a varsity roster of 52 – with 14 of those academically ineligible, the team opened the season with a 28-7 win over Kealakehe on Friday before a War Memorial Stadium crowd that was rich with Maui High blue.

“We have good backing and support by our administration, parents and our families and that’s all we need,” Bui said. “The student body is less negative about the outlook of our football program, so we are starting to get some positive things going.”

The player turnout has been on the rise since Bui took over three seasons ago. Maui High went 11-54-1 in the MIL from 2004 to 2010, but is 10-14 in league play under Bui.

This year, the Sabers have added veteran MIL assistant coaches Rodney Figueroa and Tony Corniel to the staff.

Senior brothers Alexander and Atunaisa Vainikolo lead the defense in their third varsity seasons. Alexander Vainikolo, a 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker, had three tackles for loss against Kealakehe.

“I don’t really pay attention to the hype,” Alexander Vai-nikolo said. “We want to live up to it, but we don’t want to prove ourselves wrong. Baldwin isn’t the only team in the league. We just want to be the best we can be.”

Atunaisa Vainikolo, a 6-1, 245-pound defensive lineman, showed he is fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 campaign.

Sabers fullback Onosai Emelio said the team has been building under Bui for this season.

“The goal for this team is to make individual goals and achieve them – to overcome the obstacles that we haven’t been able to in the past,” Emelio said. “We have to stay together and stay organized. If we do that, we will be good.”

Junior quarterback Austin Hoe missed the game against Kealakehe, but should be ready for Maui High’s MIL opener Thursday night against Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, which should mean the Sabers will go to the air more after throwing just two passes against the Waveriders.

“He’s stronger, he’s healthier,” Bui said of Hoe. “We feel like we are going to get a good season out of him.”

Tristan Nichols, a 6-4, 240-pound junior tight end, will be one of Hoe’s targets. Nichols was a first-team MIL All-Star in basketball last season.

Junior running back Daniel Kelley piled up 216 rushing yards and a touchdown against Kealakehe.

Bui pointed to Emelio as a key on offense, and the Vainikolos, Arven Lacaden and So-ane Vaohea as players to watch on defense.

“We are ready to roll,” Bui said.

* Robert Collias is at