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Na Alii look to build on upswing

After breakthrough 2019 season, King Kekaulike appears to still have momentum going into 2021

Makoa U‘u catches a pass in front of King Kekaulike High School teammate Jake Yoro during a practice Friday at King Kekaulike Stadium. Na Alii open the season on Oct. 23 against Baldwin at War Memorial Stadium. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

PUKALANI — With a clearer path to the Division II state tournament — and coming off a breakthrough season — the King Kekaulike High School football team is raring to go for the 2021 season.

Na Alii won three games in 2019 after entering it on a 41-game losing streak. While many of the leaders from that team are gone, the momentum appears to be still in place, despite missing the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part of that comes from the foundation that has been set by head coach Tyson Valle and his staff.

“I think it’s tough because we normally start in January, with our offseason training and clinics and stuff,” Valle said at practice Friday. “But to our surprise a lot of these guys have been doing stuff — I think for our younger guys is where we’re concerned because we haven’t really spent much time with those guys.

“We do have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who are learning pretty quick. We can only teach so much in a short amount of time, but they are acclimating pretty quick. I think they’ll be OK for the season.”

King Kekaulike’s Tomasi Finau practices rushing the passer Friday while double-teamed by Feki Finau (left) and Isaiah Mike.

With 47 total players approved to play as of Thursday — the state Department of Education requires that all must be vaccinated for COVID-19 or have an approved exemption for religious or medical reasons — Na Alii’s numbers are trending up, but they are not likely to field a junior varsity team this season.

“We grew, we still have guys waiting for exemptions, I think we have about seven, which ought to clear and then they’ll be out next week,” Valle said. “At this point, we’re kind of looking at it, but we don’t feel we want to do a JV (team) and the reason is the kids are not in 100 percent football shape. So, our plan is to work with these guys, constant rotation, constantly get some players in so that they can rest and actually play the game — that’s our plan this season.”

Valle said that one of the strengths of the team will be the offensive line. Kimo Moniz-Kekumu, a 6-foot, 380-pound sophomore, is the starting center.

“To me, they’re probably going to be the biggest line you’re ever going to see coming out of King Kekaulike,” Valle said. “Mark Ragudo, that’s our veteran lineman. He’s played varsity since he was a freshman. We also have got Tamaki Finau over here. He’s helping us — he’s a defensive end, but he will help us on the offensive side as well.”

Ragudo, a 5-8, 310-pound senior, will play right guard on offense and nose guard on defense. He is just grateful to be playing this season after the COVID-19 shutdown.

King Kekaulike’s Abe Sumibcay returns an interception during a tip drill Friday

“It feels really good, I’m super excited for the season,” Ragudo said. “Not a lot of people are coming out right now, but I’m so excited, I’m so excited to go hard. It’s my last year and I’m ready.

“I see the potential,” he added. “I love my team. I support them all the way and I think we can go far.”

Junior Jacob Poouahi is in line to start at quarterback.

“Our surprise quarterback, probably the guy looking at, is Jacob Poouahi,” Valle said. “At the JV level he played a lot of defense, not so much a quarterback, but he’s been working hard the past year, really trying to develop himself into the quarterback position.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this kid take it real serious and he looks real good, so I think he’s ready to go.”

The smile on Poouahi’s face doesn’t seem to ever go away.

The 5-10, 195-pound junior is enjoying being back behind center for the first time since his Pop Warner career.

“Oh, it feels amazing, man,” he said. “Right now I feel tired, you know, it comes throughout the week, but I feel just amazing, just loving the sport right now, even if I wasn’t at the quarterback position.

“Feels great to be a leader on that field, just to be there, call the plays, call the shots and everything. I haven’t played quarterback since Kulamalu (Cowboys) days, but it’s all coming back to me. … That was approximately six or seven years ago.”

The defense will be led by Lahainaluna transfer Tysyn Estrella.

“He’s definitely our middle linebacker, locking down the defense,” Valle said. “He’s a big, fast kid — I mean, 255, 260, he’s moving fast. Great leadership, positive attitude, always encouraging the kids to move and get moving at practice. That’s where we’re winning the battles right now.”

With four-time Division II defending state champion Lahainaluna having moved up to Division I this year, Na Alii must only beat out across-the-street rival Kamehameha Maui for the MIL D-II state berth this season.

With the condensed schedule, the two teams will play each other three times among the six-game league slate. All the games count, but none more than the Upcountry rivalry.

“We always have been rivals with Kamehameha across the street, we go back and forth with them,” Valle said. “We know the coaching staff real well. A lot of the kids know each other, too, so it’s great to see them when we get onto the field with them.”

Na Alii have not been to the state tournament since winning the 2006 D-II state crown.

“They’re definitely standing in the way of the playoffs, so, yeah, we have got to get ready for them and gear up,” Valle said.

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

Na Alii at a Glance

2019 record: 2-6 MIL, 3-6 overall

Returning starters: 3 offense, 4 defense

Offense: Spread

Defense: 3-4

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