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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, November 25, 2003

'Aiea pair's spirituality, maturity a big part of their football success

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

'Aiea quarterback Kali Kuia, left, and safety/linebacker Aveni Leung-Wai wake up early for a 5:50 a.m. seminary at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 'Aiea Ward. They have helped Na Ali'i advance to Friday's semifinals of the State Division II Tournament.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The after-dinner hours can be a rough time for high school football players, who often are mentally and physically drained following a long day of school and practice.

But 'Aiea quarterback Kali Kuia and strong safety/linebacker Aveni Leung-Wai believe that how you start the day makes a big difference in how you finish — even if that start is at 5 a.m.

Kuia, a sophomore, and Leung-Wai, a junior, eagerly awake at that time every weekday and head off into the darkness for their 5:50 a.m. seminary at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 'Aiea Ward. They spend 50 minutes going through scriptures, discussing life issues and learning more from the Book of Mormon.

And so by 6:40 — before many of their teammates have gotten out of bed — Kuia and Leung-Wai are ready to face the day with sound body, mind and spirit.

"It's something I like to do," said Kuia, who has helped guide Na Ali'i (8-2) into Friday's Division II state tournament semifinals against Lahainaluna. "It helps me keep focus, to think about what I gotta do throughout the day. It helps me in school, because it helps me concentrate on my work, and it helps me in football, because we learn about the talents we've been given and how to try and develop it."

Kuia, who led the O'ahu Interscholastic Association with 138 completions in 220 attempts for 1,561 yards, certainly has talent. His completion percentage of 62.7 was the best of any quarterback on the island, and only two other OIA quarterbacks (McKinley's Abel Werner and Pearl City's Jensen Cabanero) threw more touchdowns than his 12.

"He's gifted, but the real impressive part is how mature and unselfish he is," said 'Aiea coach Wendell Say. "Against Kapolei, we were trying to figure out how to slow the game down with more ball control, and we decided that there's no one better to run that offense than Ben (Ah Mook Sang) because he can run or pass. Kali agreed, and he said, 'Coach, when I'm in there (the Hurricanes) know I'm only going to hand off.' He said, 'Don't worry about my playing time.'"

Leung-Wai also has displayed a team-first attitude, switching back and forth from strong safety to linebacker according to need. He is part of a defense that has allowed only 10 points per game and returned four interceptions for touchdowns.

"It's hard to pinpoint one person because the success of this team has been its unselfishness," Say said. "But it does help to have guys like Kali and Aveni, because their personalities are very similar and they exemplify everything we try to reinforce: you don't see them get angry, they're always very supportive of their teammates, they don't swear or cuss, they're good role models on campus, their teachers speak well of them. We try to teach that stuff, but these boys live it."

Like Kuia, Leung-Wai says living that uplifting daily life all begins with the morning seminary.

"It's something to look forward to, because it puts me in the right frame of mind," Leung-Wai said. "I go to school feeling good and wanting to do good things. I think it kinda (rubs) off on others, too, because when you're in a good mood, you always try to be kind to each other and help each other play better. Like if somebody makes a mistake, we tell them it's not that bad and we try to support them."

For Kuia, that's the kind of support he gets from his parents and four younger brothers. The whole family usually is waiting with warm smiles at 'Aiea's parking lot after Kali's practices, and Saturdays are set aside as 'ohana time.

"It's nice to see a family so close, especially nowadays when there are so many broken families," Say said. "They always seem happy, it's a real bright spot. They always have family outings, too. We took the team bowling (last Wednesday) and Kali bowled a 191 and a 203. I said, 'Eh, what, you bowl?' And he said, 'Yeah, my family always goes bowling.'"

As talented an athlete as he is, Kuia had to fight for the starting job on the varsity after sharing the role on last year's JV team.

"I just tried to do my best," Kuia said. "There's a lot of speed (at the varsity level), and that's kind of a big factor. When we played Saint Louis in the pass league, that was the fastest defense I ever saw, especially without pads."

Kuia threw three touchdown passes in that game, building his confidence. But it's a confidence that does not get out of control. In the classroom, he's known more as a pleasant student with a 3.1 grade point average.

"He's so mild-mannered, a lot of teachers didn't even realize he was the starting quarterback until they read the paper," Say said. "They didn't know it was the same kid."

True to form, Kuia and Leung-Wai have shown modesty in Na Ali'i's recent success.

"Our coaches prepared us well (for Kapolei)," Kuia said. "I enjoyed watching (Ah Mook Sang); his running helped ease the burden."

And although the defense scored a touchdown and preserved the victory with a late interception, Leung-Wai sent praise the other way.

"We're happy we get to make things happen, but a lot of our success is because of the offense," he said. "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have our rest."

For his part, Say defers the credit as well for his two model players.

"I'd tell the parents, 'Whatever you're doing, keep up the good work," he said.

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.