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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 10:59 a.m., Friday, September 5, 2008

Lanai finally returns with a football team

By Brad Sherman
The Maui News Sports Editor


For more Maui news, visit www.mauinews.com

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The Lana'i Pop Warner Football Association started with nothing.

The organization had no equipment from jerseys to tackling dummies to footballs themselves, to say nothing of helmets or pads.

There was no funding.

A team was little more than an idea.

That was in April.

Now, the Lana'i Na Koa Rams play their first game Sunday.

''The families here are very, very excited,'' Ken Mailo, one of the organizers, said to The Maui News.

''We took the ball and we ran with it.''

The organizing has been done. Sign-ups are complete, coaches have been certified and practices are under way. An intrasquad scrimmage provided some preseason competition last week.

The official debut will be on Sunday against the Kulamalu Cowboys at War Memorial Stadium in a Junior Pee Wee (ages 8-11) game the lone division in which the team will compete this year.

According to the Lana'i Culture & Heritage Center, the Pineapple Isle has not had football for more than 50 years, since the days of a ''Barefoot League'' (so named because the players did indeed compete without shoes or socks) as well as a Lana'i High School team.

''The last time football was here was when my dad played,'' said head coach Duane Azoa, whose staff includes George Ornellas, a former St. Louis School and University of Hawai'i player.

While the team's debut is cause for excitement, getting to this point took plenty of work and money.

Finding players was one of the simpler tasks.

''We ended up with 25 kids on the roster and 17 cheerleaders,'' said association president Angie Raboin.

''We had almost 40 kids sign our interest list. A few didn't make weight either they were over the limit or didn't weigh enough. We were really concerned we wouldn't get the 18 kids, but we started practicing at Dole Park, and everybody is starting to see us practice. Everyone is getting a little bit more excited about it, and some of the older kids are getting interested, too. Some kids are actually losing weight to play next year. They're playing at the park, exercising out at the park. We had kids lose up to 10 pounds, knowing they're not going to be able to play this year, but getting ready for next year. The kids have heart.''

Raboin added: ''The first day of practice, we had about five or six kids just walk up and sign up that day of practice. There were some who watched for the first week and were a little nervous and then decided to join.''

Among the players is Geori Ornellas, George Ornellas' daughter, who plays running back and defensive back.

''I thought I would look to join, and I really like being on the team,'' she said.

While filling a roster hasn't been too great a challenge, finances have proven tougher, though the team has discovered that Lana'i residents and businesses are ready to help.

According to Fran Waite, the association's funding chairwoman, travel expenses alone are $1,100 to $1,300 per game Lana'i does not have a home field. Waite said Roberts Hawaii is providing a discount for travel once the team arrives on Maui each week.

The total cost for operating a team this year, Waite said, will be more than $30,000.

''We sent out letters to some of the Lana'i businesses and asked for donations, and have gotten back a good amount,'' she said.

Individuals have made contributions as well.

''It's due to our community getting behind us,'' Raboin said. ''People have been donating from amounts as small as $10, to $250.''

In June, the Lana'i Community Benefit Fund made a $5,000 donation.

Carl Brito knows the challenges the Lana'i association is dealing with. He is the president of the Moloka'i Youth Sports League, which plays teams on O'ahu.

''We're facing a little hardship with the state's economics,'' Brito said.

Fundraising is by no means complete for Na Koa Rams.

Prior to last week's scrimmage and ''Kickoff'' event, Waite said the team was about halfway toward its needs for the year.

Long-term goals include building a home field.

The time has come, however, to focus on the team and the season.

''We don't know the other teams,'' said Geori Ornellas. ''We're doing good, though.''