As practices get underway, MIL football coaches like what they see

WAILUKU — As Pohai Lee peered out at the field adjacent to Sakamoto Pool on Saturday, he smiled.

The occasion was an informal round-robin seven-on-seven tournament with Lee’s Baldwin High School team taking on others from Maui High, King Kekaulike and Lahainaluna.

Quarterbacks were lining up in slot receiver or running back spots, linebackers were moving deep into safety positions, but coaches like Lee were watching what they might be facing in just over a month when the Maui Interscholastic League begins games that count.

Games that don’t officially count begin in just over two weeks — the first MIL teams to see action will be Lahainaluna hosting Damien and King Kekaulike traveling to Oahu to take on McKinley.

Official practice began around the state on Monday.

“The league right now — I was just mentioning to our guys after our first couple of (seven-on-seven) games — that you’ve got to expect everybody to be tough,” Lee said. “Athletes all around. You look around, I mean everybody’s got them. So, yeah, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be challenging for sure. We’re looking forward to it.”

Lahainaluna rolls into the season riding a 21-game winning streak overall, dating back to a 34-10 loss to Kamehameha Kapalama on Aug. 12, 2017.

The Lunas are the three-time defending Division II state champions and became the first MIL team to ever finish 11-0 last season, according to stats provided by Stacy Kaneshiro of scoringlive.com.

Lahainaluna has also won 17 MIL games in a row dating back to a 19-13 loss to Baldwin on Oct. 15, 2016 — the MIL record for league wins in a row is 19, done twice by Baldwin.

“They’ve got a lot of depth and a lot of experience,” Lee said as he watched the Lunas play Kamehameha Maui on Saturday. “And that always helps as you’re going into the season — you have that momentum going from the previous season.”

Lee said his team turnout is solid as the Bears look for their first state tournament berth since 2016, when they ran up an 8-0 MIL record.

“Our numbers are as good as they’ve been the past couple years,” Lee said. “And that goes with the fact that these guys are a tightknit group, got good chemistry, they’ve come up through the ranks, Pop Warner and Big Boys. So, the attitude has been great. We’re looking forward to the season.”

Baldwin said goodbye to 21 seniors from last season, but rising junior quarterback La’a Asuega-Stark led the MIL last season with 1,488 yards passing to go along with 15 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.

“Physically he’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten a little taller,” Lee said. “He still needs more reps. Not there yet, obviously with not having everybody around him, but he definitely made strides this past offseason.”

Senior-to-be Kapena Kamai led the league in receptions last season with 34. He had 311 yards and three touchdowns receiving.

Things will start up front for the Bears, who return four starters on the offensive line, all of whom will be seniors.

“They will be taking the reigns offensively and leadership,” Lee said of his offensive linemen. ” ‘D’ I’m really excited about. We’ve got guys that can run and are aggressive. So, they have that really nasty little attitude, they want to get after people.”

Maui High has been the MIL Division I state representative the last two seasons and they return Naia Nakamoto, who set MIL records last season with 1,353 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.

“They look really good and that’s why it’s going to be very challenging,” Lee said.

Backup sophomore quarterback Toa Afemui took the snaps for Maui High on Saturday as starter Brex Delray was busy taking the SAT.

“We’re out here to have fun and for me bringing the young kids out here, it was just to see how they react against competition, see the speed of the game,” Maui High coach Rodney Figueroa said.

Figueroa sees a wide-open race for the MIL title and the single state berths to the Division I and II tournaments.

“Everybody’s gotten better,” Figueroa said. “You know, Lahaina sits at the top, but we’re all trying to get up on that mountain.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

MIL Nonleague Football Schedule

Saturday, Aug. 3

Damien at Lahainaluna, 7 p.m.

King Kekaulike vs. McKinley at Farrington, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 10

Molokai at Kamehameha Maui, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 16

Baldwin vs. Edison (Calif.) at War Memorial Stadium, 6 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 17

Kwansei Gakuin (Japan) at King Kekaulike, 6 p.m.

Kapaa at Lahainaluna, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 24

Maui High vs. Kauai at Vidinha Stadium, 7 p.m.

Note: Regular-season play starts Aug. 23-24