Next step, college 75 Hawaii prep stars sign letters of intent
• Photo gallery: National Letter of Intent signing day
By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
A year ago today, Kainoa Pakele was a frustrated junior at Hilo High School — unsure about his prep football career, not even thinking about a college scholarship.
"Not even close," said Pakele, who yesterday signed a National Letter of Intent to accept a scholarship from the University of Montana Western. "It's a dream, a blessing, to have this experience."
Pakele, who now attends Kapolei High School, was one of 75 seniors attending a signing-day ceremony yesterday morning hosted by the Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance and the Sheraton Waikiki.
It was the first day college football and soccer pros- pects from across the nation were allowed to sign letters of intent, which officially bind athletes and universities to scholarship agreements. Yesterday's event followed similar scenes played throughout the country, with rabid fans following their favorite college's harvest via ESPN or the many recruiting Web sites that have sprouted in recent years.
The PIAA event has grown from a small gathering of about a dozen football players in Kapolei five years ago, to about 50 athletes at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall last year, to 75 in the Sheraton's Kaua'i Ballroom yesterday.
Most of the football scholarships are regarded as "full rides" — covering tuition, room and board, books — which can be worth up to $40,000 per year or more.
In today's bleak economy, such opportunities are increasingly treasured.
"I'm happy to be going to any college," Pakele said, "as long as it's free."
UP TO THE CHALLENGE
Pakele's father, Kaulana, said his son had a successful sophomore season at Hilo but struggled after a coaching change last year.
"He said he needed a change," Kaulana Pakele said. "He needed motivation, so I told him, 'Why don't you move to O'ahu and live with me (in Kapolei)?' "
Kainoa Pakele, however, was intimidated at first.
"He told me, 'I don't think I can make it; those guys are too good,' " Kaulana said.
Kainoa added: "I seriously thought I was going to get cut."
But Kapolei coach Darren Hernandez said he immediately noticed Pakele's speed, and Pakele ultimately earn- ed a spot at safety and return specialist, returning two kickoffs 90 yards for touchdowns.
"He averaged 36 yards per return," Hernandez said. "He has a knack for running in the open field."
That knack was noticed by Montana Western assistant coach Pohai Lee, a Saint Louis School graduate and former assistant coach at Baldwin. A scholarship offer soon followed, and Pakele jumped at the chance.
"With the (Western Undergraduate Exchange) scholarship, it's worth about $10,000 (per year)," said Kaulana Pakele. "And with other (financial aid), it should cover almost everything."
Pakele was one of 12 Kapolei football players to sign letters yesterday — three to NCAA Division I programs, five to smaller four-year universities and four to junior colleges.
"I'm proud of this group, because they took care of business in the classroom," Hernandez said. "I told them that they have to take care of their grades first, and then I can help them with putting together (game) tapes and the rest."
Pakele said he understood what was at stake.
"I wanted to make good grades, so I could make my family proud," Pakele said. "It's a great thing to be mentioned with this talented group, to be going to college."
Former Kamehameha and University of Hawai'i standout Leo Goeas, who played eight seasons in the NFL and is now a player agent, addressed the athletes and their parents before they signed their letters.
"The most important thing is getting your degree," Goeas said. "I'm not naive enough to think you don't have sports aspirations, but don't forget you are going to college to get that degree."
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona also stressed the day's academic aspect.
"Your (athletic) career will end, but your education will always be with you," he said.
The 75 athletes also included boys and girls soccer players.
'EDUCATION IS KEY'
Other schools held their own signing-day ceremonies on campus. At Kahuku, nine football players signed letters of intent, including The Advertiser's two top-ranked recruits, Kona Schwenke (Notre Dame) and Hauoli Jamora (Washington).
Even in the midst of an intense recruiting battle that included Arizona and Boise State, Jamora did not lose sight of what the scholarship offers represent. Washington's full scholarship — tuition, room, board, books — is worth about $42,000 a year.
"If I didn't have the scholarship, there's no way I could go (there)," said Jamora, who has five brothers and two sisters. "I would need a lot of financial aid, I'd be taking out a big loan and it would put me in debt for a while. Shucks, I'd probably have to stay close to home just out of necessity."
Jamora, The Advertiser's State Co-Defensive Player of the Year this past season, said he carries a 3.5 grade-point average at Kahuku and aspires to a career in the medical field.
"My education is the key to my success," he said.