Pride was at stake for winless rivals
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Waialua's Charlie Tantog, top, helps Larry Ladao stretch before yesterday's practice. Practice was more enjoyable after the Bulldogs won their first game of the season on Saturday.
Eugene Tanner The Honolulu Advertiser
Saturday night's matchup between hard-luck rivals Waialua and Kalani pitted together the bottom two teams in the Oahu Interscholastic Association's second-tier White Division in a game Kalani parent Stephen Travis called, "the championship of last place."
The teams entered the game a combined 0-12 in their division, 0-14 overall. They had been outscored 419-41. Worse yet for the Falcons, all 41 of those points were scored by Waialua. Through seven games, Kalani was not only winless, but scoreless.
"Our goals right now are different than they were at the start (of the season)," Kalani coach Ronald Dement said before the game. "I think it'll be a big thing for the kids if we score tonight."
Expectations have always been modest for the two programs. While some seasons have been better than others, both schools have earned reputations as "gimmes" on opposing schedules.
"Everybody knows about Kalani football," said Janine Onaga, a member of the Kalani band. "We're kind of accustomed to losing."
Still, Saturday's game represented the best shot either team had at a modicum of respectability, a payoff for a season of hard work and sacrifice.
For Waialua's seniors, it was a final chance to do something they had never done: win a game in front of their home crowd. Waialua had lost 21 in a row, dating back to 1999.
On the Bulldogs' first possession, senior Charlie Tantog made his intentions clear with a 60-yard touchdown run.
In any other game this season, that would have been enough to put away the Falcons. But then the unprecedented happened. Kalani responded.
With 3:31 left in the first quarter, Dane Souza powered his way for a 1-yard touchdown that elicited a riotous response from Kalani parents and supporters.
"It was really exciting," said Frances Yamada, mother of senior Matt Yamada. "I had tears in my eyes."
Like parents on both sides, Yamada says she's tried her best to keep her son encouraged through a long season of disappointments.
"Matt loves his sports, so we try to keep him encouraged and support the coaching staff," Yamada said. "You feel for them."
Sometimes those feelings are mixed.
"We come because the kids need us," said Roberta Lorenzo, whose daughter is dating one of the Bulldog players. "In the beginning there was more enthusiasm and more parents were coming out to support the team. But it's tough. There's a petition going around right now to get rid of the coach."
Dedicated players, fans
Yet, while frustrations sometimes run high in the stands, many Waialua fans say they are just happy to see their players pursue their love of the game.
"I enjoy it even if they lose," said Helen Toki. "They hustle and I know they're trying hard."
Said Russell Lloyd, whose daughter attends Waialua: "It's fun every game. We just go with the flow. No one gets too disappointed."
The teams exchanged touchdowns in the second quarter a 63-yard run by Kalani's Jon Kuba and a 25-yard run by Waialua's Larry Ladao for a 14-14 halftime tie.
All too familiar with the ways in which games can slip away, Waialua coach Donald "Chico" Capello said he was concerned about his team's reaction to giving up Kalani's first touchdowns of the season.
"The first thing I did was look at their faces to see how they would react," Capello said. "They were a little quiet, but we told them to keep it up, don't give up."
That's been the enduring message of the season. Through narrow defeats and humiliating blowouts, the Bulldogs have somehow managed to hold on to their competitive pride, Capello said.
"That's them," Capello said. "The whole season, they never put their heads down. Our thing is to play like champions. Win, lose or draw, we're going to put up a good fight."
'They just keep on trying'
The same can be said of the Falcons.
"You come from the Kalani district area, you don't have the best athletes," Dement said. "It's not easy. You look at all the teams we've played and they've all been bigger than us.
"I give these kids credit," Dement added. "We got blown last week, but they all showed up for practice on Monday. Other kids on other teams, if they went through a season like this not scoring, getting blown out they might have left the team. Not these kids. They just keep trying."
Ladao returned the second-half kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown. Souza tied the score with another 1-yard rush, but Waialua scored again on a 43-yard run by Tantog to go ahead 27-21.
Fight to the finish
That set up a thrilling fourth quarter that featured four lead changes on a pair of touchdowns for each side. Grant Yamanouchi put Waialua up for good on a 51-yard touchdown reception from Pookela Gasper with 4:07 to play. The Bulldogs led 42-35 after the ensuing two-point conversion.
"This was real big a gorilla off the back," said Capello. "From their freshmen year, our players get the stigma that Waialua isn't that good. But we pound it into their heads that they can, they can, they can. Tonight they showed they could."
For the Falcons, who scored five touchdowns in the game, the loss was devastating. They shook hands with the Bulldogs then, tears streaming, disappeared in the team bus.
"The kids played hard really hard tonight," Dement said. "I'm very, very proud of them."
For the Waialua seniors, it was the best night any of them could remember. They gathered in front of the home bleachers, helmets raised high, and serenaded friends and family with their alma mater.