Senior Spotlight: No gold, but future bright for Yasutake
Luna senior credits wrestling with helping on path to top college
Senior Spotlight is a special series highlighting standout MIL student-athletes in fall and winter sports as they reflect upon their high school careers and look toward the future. Stories will run periodically in The Maui News.
Cael Yasutake owns three state wrestling medals, but he will have to leave the one he wanted most on the shelf. Forever.
Yasutake, a Lahainaluna High School senior, finished fifth at 106 pounds as a freshman at the state tournament, fifth at 113 as a sophomore and second at 113 as a junior.
His senior season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I first heard the news I was kind of sad because I’ve been working for this for all four years of high school,” Yasutake said. “Like, the hard work that we put in throughout the years. It’s just kind of sad that the season got canceled, but the safety and the health of everyone comes first — all my coaches, my teammates, their safety comes first so that should have been the first priority, but it’s still kind of disappointing and sad to see.”
Yasutake grew up with the Lunas’ wrestling program. It is just recently, however, that he has started to come out of his shell.
“He’s blossomed, he’s matured over the last year or two and he can speak up now, not like before,” Lahainaluna head coach Todd Hayase said. “He definitely comes from a wrestling family. He probably started wrestling at 5 years old. His brothers and sisters are all wrestling.”
Yasutake’s grandfather, Neal Nakata, is a former Luna head coach. His uncle Nick Nakata is a former standout Luna wrestler and current assistant coach.
Neal Nakata lives in the same house with Yasutake and another Lunas assistant, Shane Cunanan, lives on the same cul-de-sac in Lahaina.
Yasutake learned a ton from wrestling, both on the mats and off. Injuries were a big part of his prep career, but they never kept him from competing for long.
It was Cunanan, a former standout at West Virginia University, who convinced him to wrestle on the second day of the state tournament as a sophomore when he had to go to the hospital the night before to get stitches above his eye; earlier that season, Yasutake had a broken bone near the same eye.
There was, after all, team points to think about. He helped the Lunas finish third that season, just eight points away from the crown.
“It’s been kind of a rollercoaster of a ride for me with all the injuries I’ve had, like the highs and lows,” Yasutake said. “I was injured as a freshman, sophomore and junior.”
Freshman year he suffered a concussion at the start of the season; his sophomore year he fractured the orbital rim of his eye and later the above-eye stitches; and junior year he had a high ankle sprain and pulled hamstring.
This season, “I was ready to put it all on the table, leave it all out on the mat, my last year,” he said.
With six Advanced Placement classes and a 4.133 grade-point average, Yasutake lists a top-five college wish list of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Cornell.
“That would be a dream to go to one of these schools,” Yasutake said.
He applied to 12 schools total and will be one of Lahainaluna’s valedictorians.
“I have done so many college applications or recommendations over the years and … I am not a great writer,” Hayase said. “His, I had to have somebody proofread it and actually help me out because when you’re applying to Stanford and all these Ivy League schools, they don’t want Coach Todd writing these, so I had to get it proof read to keep up with him.”
Yasutake has been on Lahainaluna robotics teams that have qualified for Mainland competitions each of the last two years.
“Right now I’m hoping to get into one of the top schools and major in bio-medical engineering,” Yasutake said. “That’s engineering where they build treatments or preventatives for diseases and stuff.”
He does not plan to wrestle in college, but he knows it helped him get there.
“Yeah, I would definitely say so because wrestling we’re taught to work hard and do the extras,” he said. “And at Lahainaluna we’re taught to improve a little bit every single practice. So, in academics, that’s kind of like learning a little something every day, just improving yourself a little bit.
“Over the course of a wrestling season, those small steps that you take, they add up to mounds of progress by the end.”
Yasutake has three younger siblings who will now take on the family goal of a state gold medal — Nick Nakata lost a heartbreaker in the state semifinals his senior season.
“I’m going to miss it a lot,” Yasutake said of Lahainaluna wrestling. “I’ve had a lot of great memories up at the room, I’m going to miss all my teammates, my coaches, even some of the hard stuff that goes with wrestling. I’m even going to miss a lot from of those experiences — early morning runs to make weight, hard practices, drilling with my teammates. Just, like, the wrestling in general, I think I’m going to miss it.”
With his family ties, Lahainaluna wrestling will never be too far away from Yasutake’s thoughts.
“It’s really just like one big family,” he said. “We always support each other, we always try to make each other better, it’s really like a tight-knit bond with each of us.”
His grandmother and grandfather are always at state send-offs with food for all. Neal Nakata was told a few years ago by doctors to back off of coaching after heart trouble, but he rarely missed any of Cael’s practices, from his days with the Lahaina Roughnecks youth program to the Lunas’ wrestling room.
Nakata had his first grandchild doing wrestling moves as a 2-year-old.
“He would always try to come there and watch, coach a little bit, but he just can’t go full-on,” Yasutake said. “He always told me when I was young, it didn’t matter if I won, it mattered if I tried. … I don’t know if I will coach, but I think I might just help … help kind of like teach what I know, kind of like give back.”
The West Maui community will be in his heart wherever he ends up for college.
“I think I’m going to miss the community the most, the wrestling ohana, the Lahainaluna wrestling ohana,” Yasutake said. “I’ve been with them and I’ve been supported by them ever since I was really young. I’m really thankful for all of my coaches, my teammates, all the alumni who come back to help us, the community, my family.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org