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MIL preseason: Games a good gauge, opportunity for players to step up

King Kekaulike High School’s Makai Farm catches a pass in front of teammate Kalaunu Rivera during a practice last month. Na Alii host Waimea in a preseason game Saturday night. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The Baldwin High School football team hasn’t played a non-league game on the road since Aug. 12, 2017.

The Bears lost that game 61-0 to Saint Louis at Aloha Stadium, but the five years since then have delivered so much change.

To open the 2022 season, Baldwin will face Kauai at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at Vidinha Stadium in the first game Cody Nakamura will be head coach for his alma mater.

“We’re just looking for our leaders, basically,” Nakamura said after practice on Monday night. “Looking for who’s going to step up in tough situations, looking for who is going to be the guy who’s picking up the team when we need it most. We’re going to give as many kids playing time as possible, just to see what they can do with game-time situations.

“That’s the main goal — being a new coach I haven’t been able to watch a lot of these players play. So, I’m excited to see them in game situations. We’re excited to get started and actually get to play another team besides ourselves.”

Joe Cariaga (left) and Evan Tarasenko, shown during a practice last October, are being considered for the starting quarterback spot for Maui High.

All five Maui Interscholastic League 11-player football teams will be in action this weekend, the first time since 2019 that there have been any preseason games for MIL teams.

The action starts Friday with Maui High facing Nanakuli at 7 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium.

On Saturday, a pair of Upcountry games will take place on Maui — Kamehameha Maui hosts Kamehameha Hawaii with a 6 p.m. kickoff and across the street at King Kekaulike Stadium, Na Alii will face Waimea at 7 p.m.

Also on Saturday, Lahainaluna travels to face Hilo at Wong Stadium.

The Bears, for one, will be looking for a quarterback. The candidates for the starting job are Antone Sanches, a sophomore, and Kaimana Kahoopii, a senior.

“They are both emerging as the leaders of the team, as far as the quarterbacks go,” Nakamura said. “We’ll probably give them equal playing time and, again, see who takes over and who wants the job.”

Like Baldwin, Maui High has a new coach in Aylett Wallwork, who is also taking over at his alma mater.

The Sabers got some scrimmage work in during a three-way practice with King Kekaulike and Lahainaluna two Saturdays ago, and this past weekend they went to the Big Island and scrimmaged with Waiakea.

“This is just another opportunity to get better,” Wallwork said. “Like I told you before, we want to get as much people in front of us, so they’re not complacent. The more competition they have then they’re not just being satisfied with beating their teammate.

“So, it’s a really good opportunity to get ready for the season. Nanakuli is a good team. They’ve always historically been a really scrappy team and it’s going to really test what we can do.”

The Sabers will also be looking at a pair of quarterbacks for the starting job — Evan Tarasenko and Joe Cariaga.

“They are going to compete,” Wallwork said. “We gotta find a leader. We think we’ve got leaders, but we’ve got to see what they can do in a game situation.”

Playing Nanakuli will be just eight days before the Sabers travel to Lahainaluna to open MIL play on Aug. 20.

“I just want them to get the nerves out playing different people,” Wallwork said. “To actually get into a real game, we’ve got to calm them down because they’re going to be so excited.”

Wallwork said the first specific thing he wants to see is to “make sure they remember their assignments. The biggest thing is you try to teach them to do this or do that, but really trying to teach them to trust their eyes. Because they know their assignments, but sometimes they second-guess themselves.”

Former MIL Defensive Player of the Year Feleti Afemui, the first MIL football player to earn a scholarship to an SEC school out of high school, is back to help coach the Sabers. He was a standout linebacker at Vanderbilt University.

“We still haven’t locked in our starters because it’s still up for competition,” Wallwork said. “We want to keep that going.”

The Lunas are anxious to see what they bring to the table against a fellow Division I state power in the Vikings, the Division I state champs in 2017 and 2019.

“We’re very excited to have this opportunity to play a state contender, actually,” Lahainaluna co-head coach Dean Rickard said. “They have been in big games, they won it (three) years ago. They beat Iolani and they have always had very competitive teams — it’s always been between them and Konawaena and Kamehameha (Hawaii) battling it out, even though Kamehameha is D-II.

“So, we feel it will be a good gauge to our team as a preseason game. And we’re really excited, the players are excited. We get to really get ready for our season, which starts next week. Having an opponent the caliber of Hilo High is really going to show us where we’re at.”

Lahainaluna was in the D-I state final, which ended up being a 38-0 loss to Iolani two days before Christmas due to the COVID pause last season.

Now, the Lunas, like everyone else, are starting a season on time for the first time since 2019, when they won their fourth straight state D-II title.

“We get to evaluate our players and see if we need to make any improvements moving forward,” Rickard said. “It’s going to really give us a gauge on where we’re at and I think that’s where the excitement comes in.”

Kamehameha Maui was in the D-II state final on Dec. 30, the first state title football game in school history, but it ended in a 61-7 loss to Kapaa.

The chance to host a game at Kanaiaupuni Stadium on Saturday night is big for the Maui Warriors.

“We’re just trying to re-evaluate our players in a real-live competition, again, to see where we’re at, see how much improvement we need to make,” Kamehameha Maui coach Ulima Afoa said. “Just testing ourselves out. You know, the kids are tired of hitting each other. So, you kind of want an opponent to see where you’re at in a live-game situation prior to the start of the season.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

*****

MIL Football Preseason Games

Friday’s Game

Maui High vs. Nanakuli at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.

Saturday’s Games

Baldwin at Kauai, 4:30 p.m.

Kamehameha Hawaii at Kamehameha Maui, 6 p.m.

Lahainaluna vs. Hilo at Wong Stadium, 6 p.m.

Waimea at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m.

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