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All smiles, but hard work ahead as MIL football teams begin conditioning

Maui High School football players warm up before lifting in the school’s weight room on Tuesday as conditioning for football teams across the Maui Interscholastic League are underway in preparation for the 2021 season. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For the first time in nearly two years, high school football players on Maui are practicing with their classmates.

The teams are far from complete, but the smiles on faces of the first attendees were plentiful at Maui and Baldwin high school conditioning sessions on Tuesday.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the first high school football action of any kind here since the end of the 2019 season

Coby Wakayama, a senior running back for Maui High, had a wide smile on his face as he stretched before a weightlifting session.

“I mean, it feels great, man,” Wakayama said. “We missed last season and it was a bummer. To come back here, offseason work, it feels good.”

Maui High School football players run through conditioning drills Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With a new staff in place after coming off a winless Maui Interscholastic League season in 2019, Wakayama was enthusiastic on Tuesday as new head coach Robert Dougherty looked on.

“I’m pumped, man,” Wakayama said. “I’m excited to see what he has for us, players coming back, looking good, a lot of talent, feels good.”

The Sabers are using two 90-minute sessions to get stretching, weightlifting and a bit of field work done for their approximately 40 players who have gotten their paperwork — including physical exams — in place to participate.

Maui High was on its sixth day of action that was going on in the school’s weight room above the gym and the football practice field about 200 yards away.

“They’re very excited because we haven’t done anything, as everybody knows,” said Dougherty, who has yet to coach a game for the Sabers after being hired in November 2019. “It’s nice to get back out here and get some normalcy in things I think is kind of nice for kids, reassuring that going into (this) year maybe we have a normal season, get them active again. They haven’t been active for a long time.”

Josiah Bailey-Lassen (foreground) and his Baldwin teammates stretch under the supervision of coach Pohai Lee during the Bears’ conditioning session Tuesday afternoon. The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo

Dougherty said there are challenges, despite the smiling faces at the preliminary workouts.

“That’s a hard thing, we lost contact a little bit with kids,” Dougherty said. “And plus, also the physical aspect of it, getting the physicals done, getting all their paperwork done. So, that’s another hurdle, they’re slowly trickling in, slowly getting the word, slowly coming more and more. Our goal is just to get the kids used to coming, coming out here and having some fun.”

Dakota Stutzman, a senior defensive end for the Sabers, admitted he had thoughts at times over the last 15 months that his high school football career may have already ended due to the ongoing COVID restrictions.

“It feels great,” Stutzman said. “I had a lot of doubts that we’d even have this season, so I think it’s really a blessing that we’re all out here.”

Stutzman added, “I think with our leaders we bring in a lot of leadership and we’re coming serious this year. We want to win and we have a lot of young talent that’s going to help make that happen.”

Maui High coach Robert Dougherty talks to players Tuesday afternoon. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Selemaiah Koka, a junior defensive lineman for Maui High, said he is working his way into shape as he took a break from field work.

“I can’t wait to get on the field and play some football,” Koka said. “Great man, great to see similar faces again. I just love that all of us can join and do this. I’m getting there, man. Most of us during quarantine, we didn’t do anything, to be honest.”

Baldwin was on its second day of conditioning on Tuesday and the number of participants nearly doubled from seven on Monday to 13 Tuesday.

“Day 2, it is great,” Baldwin coach Pohai Lee said. “I’m sure, you know we’re all happy, all the coaches are excited. Slowly we’re getting the boys in. Almost double, so it’s slowly coming and we’re expecting the first couple weeks to be slow. Re-teaching, obviously we’re taking more time with flexibility. Even paperwork, we’re re-teaching how to do that, too.”

Lee said the approach has to begin slowly.

“Oh, real careful, we’ve kind of emphasized with re-teaching it takes time,” Lee said. “So we want to be able to use the time, just explain things, talk it through. It’s not a rush-rush thing, we want to make sure they’re doing things right. Giving them time, you know, water breaks, getting them in the shade, those kinds of things.”

Nathen Foster, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior wide receiver, is one of the early leaders for the Bears.

“It feels great, like you said yesterday we had just a little bit of people, but we’re just trying to get as much people as we can to show up,” he said. “Last year was kind of hard, but we got by by going to the Mainland, competed in 7-on-7 pylons. We just stayed in shape over the summer and we’re ready for this year.”

Baldwin senior quarterback Logan Randall echoed Foster’s feelings.

“I haven’t played for a whole year, so it’s going to take a long time to get back into shape, but it’s good to be back on the field,” he said. “I feel pretty good because I’ve been working out a little bit, time to time.”

Both Randall and Foster are working the phone lines to get their classmates out for the team.

“I’ve been on it lately, been telling everybody to head out and start to come to practice so we can get in shape and get the team back together,” Randall said.

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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