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Posted at 10:44 a.m., Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Preps: Lahainaluna AD helped create state tournament

By Robert Collias
The Maui News
Commentary

LAHAINA — A decade ago, this was a dream that seemed like it would never happen.

The O'ahu Prep Bowl ruled the landscape of postseason high school football in the 50th state, and the O'ahu Interscholastic Association and Interscholastic League of Honolulu weren't about to let go of that cash cow.

After more than a quarter century of standing on the outside looking in, things changed dramatically for Neighbor Island football teams when a true state tournament was born at the 1999 Hawai'i Interscholastic Athletic Directors Association meeting.

Less than six months later, Joe Balangitao Jr. led Baldwin High School to the first state semifinals at Aloha Stadium. The Bears lost 28-12 to Kahuku that night, but still a new day — where the state football title was decided on the field — had dawned.

Friday at Aloha Stadium, Balangitao will be in the stands among what is guaranteed to be a red sea of Lahainaluna fans as the Lunas face 'Iolani for the Division II state title.

Yes, in less than 10 years, the state has gone from having no state football tournament to having a Division II state tournament, now in its fifth year of existence.

"I think we have come a long way in the state as far as having the state playoffs,'' Balangitao, now the athletic director at Lahainaluna, said to The Maui News. "When I was coaching back in the '90s we talked about it at HIADA and we were kind of pushing for it. To be honest, I didn't think I'd see it while I was still coaching.''

There were some folks, myself included, who thought we might not see it in our lifetimes.

And rest assured, we would not have seen it if it were not for Balangitao and people with foresight like him.

The Bears, who won five Maui Interscholastic League titles in 10 seasons at the Baldwin helm, were locked into the Neighbor Island Football Championship series that was a hit-and-miss two-game set between the MIL, Big Island Interscholastic Federation and Kauai Interscholastic Federation.

The MIL never lost an NIFC game in the 11-year history of the tournament. Balangitao saw that the MIL was not being challenged in the postseason, yet was still locked out of the mythical state title game, the Prep Bowl.

So he went to work scheduling Saint Louis, Kahuku, Kamehameha Kapalama, Iolani, and Waianae, among others, in the nonleague schedule.

"Those teams were in the top five in the state when we played them and we held our own,'' Balangitao said. "To me it was good for our kids and good for our league just to see where we were at. Hopefully it opened some eyes. We just felt if we don't play them, we don't know. To me, you have to have a true state championship it is better for the kids.''

Now, Balangitao's Lunas, under the guidance of Bobby Watson and the most experienced coaching staff in the state, will play for a state title. Lake Casco, Blaise Smith, Juicy Lai, Chauncey Kaukau, Kelvin Branco, and Kailas McGhee — all Luna seniors — will have the chance to play for a state football crown that their predecessors did not.

The school with less than 1,000 students that dates back to 1831 owns exactly one state team title ever — the 1982 small-school state basketball crown.

Of course, there are a few drawbacks — 10 wrestlers from a team that is a state-title contender, four basketball players from a team that may be the MIL favorite, and a standout soccer player are still playing football while their winter teams already have, or are close to, starting their seasons.

But in a community that supports its school better than just about any other around — consider they must travel 30 miles or so to get to "home'' games at War Memorial Stadium — this week is a dream come true.

Balangitao is part of a committee, that also includes Watson, to build a stadium at the "Imu'' — the school's on-campus football field that sits in the center of a gravel track — which would make MIL home games a reality. The Lunas are 9-0 in nonleague games since 2004, when they started playing there after a 57-year break.

For the school that spawned Wally Yonamine, the baseball pioneer who played for the San Francisco 49ers as well as being the first American citizen in Japan's major league, and Kenji Kawaguchi, who went on to football stardom at the University of Hawaii before becoming the first executive secretary of the MIL from 1960-86, this is the stage they have been seeking.

A win would put a star on the "L'' above the campus on the West Maui Mountains to signify a state title. And in football, no less.

"I think we have come a long way,'' said Balangitao, who has been AD at Lahainaluna since 2001. "I think it is great for the state, I think it is great for all the Neighbor Island leagues. I think it is great for the MIL because people are taking notice that, hey, we do play good football in the MIL. We can compete.''

There is no doubt about that.

Over the last two seasons, King Kekaulike has won a state D-II title, the first ever for a Neighbor Island football team, and the MIL is 5-2 over that span in state tournament games going into the Lunas' game against Iolani at 5 p.m. Friday.

Baldwin fell 41-34 to Leilehua on Saturday, preventing an MIL doubleheader on state championship night.

"I think it is just a matter of time when there will be an MIL Division I team in the final,'' Balangitao said. "King Kekaulike kind of opened the door for us last year when they won the first Division II state title. Back in the early or mid-90s, when I was with Baldwin, because we knew there was only the Neighbor Island championships, we tried to schedule tough games. We kind of wanted to test the waters and see how we would do against teams of that caliber.''

Balangitao was still an assistant coach for Lahainaluna as recently as last year, but now he is just sitting back watching Watson, Lanny Tihada and the rest of the Lunas' staff do their thing.

It has been an amazing transition for Balangitao from Baldwin to Lahainaluna the two schools have combined to win 10 of the last 11 MIL overall football titles and played the game of the year this season, a 23-20 overtime win for the Bears.

"Discipline is one of the most important things that our staff teaches, but so is sportsmanship,'' Balangitao said. "We are just grateful to be there. It is great for our kids, it is great for our coaching staff. Hopefully we do well when we get there.''

And to win? The close-knit West Maui populous would be in heaven.

"I think the community of Lahaina would be ecstatic,'' Balangitao said. "You know, it is the only school out there and the support for the school is unbelievable. You would have to work there to see what that school means to the people in that community. It is just a great community and a great school.''

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