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Column: Lunas’ proposed move to D-I provides dose of big sports news

Between the Lines

Lahainaluna High School’s Tre Rickard runs for a first-quarter touchdown during the Lunas’ nonleague loss to Damien on Aug. 3 at Sue Cooley Stadium. Rickard is one of the top returnees for the Lunas, who plan to play the Monarchs again this preseason. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

There are more questions than answers at this point, but there is some sports news to talk about in Maui County. That much is certain.

Lahainaluna High School, the four-time defending state champion in Division II football, is seeking to move up to Division I.

It was a story we broke in Thursday’s paper, a respite of sports news for the Valley Isle almost like the NFL draft was for a sports-starved nation.

A week before that, we broke the news that the Hawaii High School Athletic Association committee to establish start dates for sports is exploring several options, including playing at least some of the canceled spring sports in the fall and, perhaps, football in the spring.

Now, we do have to stay in reality.

Lahainaluna’s Devon Sa-Chisolm signals Lunas’ ball as teammate Tysyn Estrella covers a second-quarter fumble by Roosevelt in a state semifinal game on Nov. 23 at Sue Cooley Stadium. Lahainaluna defeated the Rough Riders 35-0 on the way to its fourth straight Division II state championship. This season, as the Lunas seek to move up to Division I, among the top players returning are Sa-Chisolm and Estrella.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said in his Thursday press conference that we are at least a few steps away from full-steam-ahead for sports.

My colleague Dakota Grossman asked if there might be any youth baseball tournaments played here this summer, something that state Little League officials are clinging to hope for.

“Absolutely not,” Victorino said to that thought.

But he did offer hope for the fall.

“I don’t think that there will be any competitive sports over the next few months,” Victorino said. “Maybe when we get down to football season, there could be possibilities.”

Keep in mind, golf courses around Maui County were allowed to open for business just over a week ago and all of them, public and private, have either arrived at the opening gate or are on that path.

But, again, that reality thing came up with the Mayor.

“You know, I’m not sure yet,” he said moments after mentioning football. “I have to be honest, I’m not completely satisfied in how you can promote contact sports and keep social distancing. It doesn’t seem to work out in my mind.”

When and if the football season happens during the 2020-21 academic year is certainly in question at this point — governmental approval and financing are the major issues I see standing in the way — but certainly the Lunas and their desire to move up to D-I is as intriguing a story as there is right now in the Maui Interscholastic League.

MIL 11-player football is a five-team league right now that plays two full round-robins for an eight-game slate for each team, but that is clearly on the clock to expand soon.

Molokai, the five-time defending champions in eight-player MIL football, is on the verge of requesting a move to the 11-player ranks. The Farmers dipped their toes into the 11-man game two years ago and last season played a pair of 11-man games.

The new Kihei high school is only a few years away from opening and a few more away from varsity football with an on-campus stadium.

Lahainaluna is still the gold standard for MIL football, despite losing The Maui News MIL Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year off of the 2019 team to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision — Joshua Tihada (UNLV) and Tuipulotu Lai (BYU).

Tihada ran for 2,417 yards in his MIL career and 1,087 in nine state tournament games, including a state-record 310 yards rushing in the final game of his career. He leaves Lahaina with 67 career touchdowns.

Lai was simply a wrecking ball on defense.

Both of those standouts won four state crowns, but remember the Lunas’ path to those four straight titles — built by nine straight wins in the state tournament — started with the 2016 team that was 5-3 in the MIL and had to win three close state games on the road.

The 2017 team had to survive a seven-overtime thriller in the championship game vs. Konawaena.

The 2018 team was down 26-7 at halftime, and Kapaa took the second-half opening kickoff inside the Lunas’ 10-yard line before a key turnover turned the momentum.

Perhaps the Lunas are a year late in their move to request D-I status because the 2019 team was impressive all the way around, culminating in its 21-10 win over Kapaa in the state final. Lahainaluna outscored MIL opponents 309-55 last season and won its state semifinal 35-0 over Roosevelt.

The Lunas said aloha to Tihada, Lai, Nainoa Irish, Kai Bookland, Kaihulali Casco, Matthew Rabino, Derek Perez, Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales, Rylend Nobriga, Kekailoa Cajudoy and Brysen Rickard — all of whom were at least three-time state champions, MIL first-team All-Stars, or both — off of the 2019 team.

Tre Rickard, T.J. Galoia and Hookipa Sakalia all return off of first-team All-Star selections last season. Galoia and Sakalia will protect senior quarterback Esekielu Storer, who will be back with a ton of experience under his belt, along with a major weapon in Devon Sa-Chisolm.

Storer was the No. 3 passer in the MIL last season, completing 66 of 112 passes for nine touchdowns. Sa-Chisolm averaged 21.3 yards per catch and Rickard had three TD grabs among his seven receptions, and three more touchdowns on defense and special teams.

Rickard, Tysyn Estrella, Neil Agbayani and Blare Sylva-Viela all return and could be big parts of a defense that allowed just 139 yards per game in MIL play last season.

The Lunas are riding an MIL football-record 25 wins in a row in league play. Will that live through next season, whenever it may be played? It may not, but if it doesn’t it is because Lahainaluna has forced the rest of the MIL to get better.

The approval of the request is up to the MIL athletic directors voting to pass it along to the league’s executive board, which is made up of principals and will have final say.

Right now Lahainaluna is the third-largest school in the five-team 11-player football ranks — the MIL has always based its Division I and II designations by school size. It makes little difference in the grand scheme of scheduling if Lahainaluna is granted the request and moves up to join Baldwin and Maui High in the D-I ranks, leaving Kamehameha Maui and King Kekaulike in D-II.

“We have to start trying to make arrangements once this COVID situation and the pandemic and how it turns out, but they wanted to start putting together a schedule,” Lahainaluna co-head coach Dean Rickard said. “We’ve got Damien and then we want to schedule D-I opponents because we feel that if we are going to be moved up, which we hope they do, we want to start playing more D-I schools.”

Rickard feels the program is ready for the jump.

“I think we can compete with other D-I schools and our kids are excited about it,” he said. “They want to see where they stand with the rest of the state as far as D-I is concerned. I hope the proposal gets approved, that would be great.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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