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Young Bears big in numbers, potential

Team heads into season with heavy hearts after tragic passing of Mafatini

Baldwin High School linemen push a blocking sled during practice at the school last Thursday. The Bears begin the season on Oct. 23 against King Kekaulike at War Memorial Stadium. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — The Baldwin High School football team will carry heavy hearts into the 2021 season.

Mafatini Mafatini III, a 2021 graduate of the school and standout football player, died in a single-car crash in Utah 11 days ago. Several Bears wore his name on the back of their helmets at practice last Thursday.

“He was a big part of our program, he was here for four years, three years on the varsity — it’s a tragic story,” Baldwin coach Pohai Lee said. “He will be on the mind of this team, certainly. A lot of these guys don’t know him. I had kind of a roll call and kind of a poll on who knew Mane and a lot of them don’t, but what I’m trying to get across to them is the kind of person he was, the character he was. Hopefully that will kind of filter down to them.”

The young Bears are still discovering themselves in many ways. Lee said his offense is a work in progress because of that.

“Multiple, I would say this year because we don’t really know where we want to go yet,” Lee said of his offense. “We’ll have to see when we get more into contact.”

The Bears’ Eleneke Kahekili jumps for a pass in practice.

The Bears do have a solid group of talented returnees — led by Ezra Laga, Jonathan Bacos, Nathen Foster, Jack Yoruw and Ivan Elf — to lead their 67-player roster, the largest number in the Maui Interscholastic League.

The 2020 MIL season was wiped out by COVID-19.

“These are all guys we had when they were sophomores,” Lee said. “Solid players.”

Laga and Bacos will each see time on both sides of the ball, at linebacker and running back; Yoruw is a defensive back; Elf and Aaron Hue Sing will be two-way linemen; Cory Rodrigues will anchor the offensive line; and Foster will play wide receiver and defensive back.

Elf’s primary position will be defensive end. He is the third Elf to play for the Bears, following in the footsteps of older brothers Dain and Aiden.

Baldwin football players listen to head coach Pohai Lee at the start of practice Thursday afternoon.

“It feels great, it’s been too long,” the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Elf said. “That year off just really put the need for football back in me and now I’m living it up.”

Elf was enjoying the positive atmosphere at practice on the upper field on the Baldwin campus. The Bears will open with a game against King Kekaulike on Oct. 23 at War Memorial Stadium.

“We’re fresh, we’re ready, week one is coming up soon and we’re just trying to get as prepared as possible,” Elf said. “We all just can’t wait. It’s been two years and we’re ready to give it our all. … I think we’ve got a lot of potential. I think this is probably one of the best teams I’ve played for.”

Yoruw was encouraged by the large turnout.

“That’s a big jump from the beginning of the summer when we only had like 20 or 22,” the 5-8, 155-pounder said. “We’re excited. We’re ready to go on the field and give it our all.”

Like Elf, Yoruw followed two older brothers who played for the Bears, Joshua and Jac (pronounced “J.C.”).

Both Ivan Elf and Jack Yoruw recall their former teammate, Mafatini.

“I remember a lot, since intermediate school I saw him play on the field, an amazing dude, great guy, and a great leader on the field, too, always pushing us to our max,” Yoruw said.

When asked if Mafatini will be on their minds during the 2021 season and beyond, Yoruw answered, “Absolutely.”

Yoruw also sees plenty of potential for the Bears.

“Great, we’ve got a lot of potential,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep grinding, putting in our work until the game and we’ll see.”

Yoruw admitted that he thought his senior season might not happen.

“I was worried that there was not going to be a season,” Yoruw said. “This feels amazing, I cannot wait to go out on the field and give it my all.”

Logan Randall and Uluaki Oto both played quarterback on the Bears JV team in 2019 and are leading a battle of five players to claim the position on the varsity squad this season.

Even with the largest overall roster in the league, the Bears are awaiting a decision from the MIL athletic directors on if there will be junior varsity play in the league this season.

“I know they are trying to think outside the box on some options for JV play,” Lee said.

Lee is personally ready to roll.

“Very excited, I like the character of this group, they are hard-working, they are coming out with a great attitude,” he said. “Again, it’s just kind of wait and see, but we’re getting them more into pads and that way we’ll get a better idea, see whose eyes light up. Everybody looks good without pads.”

Lee admits that he is surprised by the turnout after the state Department of Education decree that halted practice statewide on Aug. 4 and ruled that all players, coaches and volunteers must be vaccinated for COVID-19 or have an approved exemption for religious or medical reasons.

“The good thing about it is a lot of youngsters coming out,” Lee said. “So, that’s something to build for the future. It’s a widespread thing where we just want to get on the field and play.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

Bears at a Glance

2019 record: 5-3 MIL, 5-5 overall (lost 34-7 to Leilehua in Division I state tournament)

Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense

Offense: Multiple

Defense: 4-4

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