Frigid is exactly what it is in Kansas today.
Temperatures with a high of 29 on Monday couldn’t put a damper on a tremendous season for defensive lineman Kahewai Kaaiawaawa. The former Mililani Trojan started for Garden City Community College (Kan.), which went 11-0 and reached the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game, beating No. 2 Arizona Western 25-22 on Saturday.
Garden City finished 11-0, claiming the title after an 18-hour bus ride into hostile territory. Kaaiawaawa, a freshman starter, had 4.5 sacks and was second in the conference in fumble recoveries.
“It was a long journey there. We put a lot of preparation work the whole season to get up to this point,” Kaaiawaawa wrote via text. “We focused on being 1-0 each week on the field and in the classroom, so by the time we played Arizona (Western), we were more than prepared.”
His route as an athlete has also been astounding, arriving as a 300-pound lineman, melting down to 265 during summer camp, and then finishing as a versatile 285-pounder who can play inside and outside.
“He plays the 5 (edge), sometimes 0 (nose). He’s mobile and good on his feet,” said Garden City international recruiting coordinator/running backs coach Keiki Misipeka-Kelemete.
Defensive line coach Rico Cherico cherishes Kaaiawaawa’s blend of skills and physical talent.
“He’s kind of a jack of all trades for us. We’re the only junior college in the country who has a full-time strength coach and he has benefitted,” Cherico said. “We’re really, really excited about him. With Coach Keiki and our Polynesian connection, we’re extremely pleased.”
Kaaiawaawa was part of Mililani’s Division I state championship team as a junior in 2014. He had no idea his path would take him into the heartland of America.
“The biggest sacrifice was leaving my beautiful islands of Hawaii to go to Kansas, a place I never though or even imagined, to live,” he wrote via text. “Kansas is a very good place if you want to stay focused on school and football. There’s not a lot of things to do here, that’s why. No distractions like big cities, parties or even women. …I would say going to a JC far from home is sometimes the best option because it helps you be more independent and makes you want to work hard so you can come home faster.”
Misipeka, a former Farrington assistant coach, is in his first year with Garden City. He played for Hawaii during the Nick Rolovich years, and the Warriors have shown interest in Kaaiawaawa.
“With the Hawaii kids, like Jordan Agasiva, he’s a success story. Jordan Ta‘amu is a success story. With the success we’ve had and playing in the national championship, schools like Hawaii have shown interest,” Misipeka said. “Kahewai has had a good season and now it’s a matter of him finishing next year and graduating (with an AA degree). He went through spring ball and was one of the athletes who was consistent in training, in practices and that’s how he won the starting job.”
Misipeka, 36, lives in Las Vegas and was running a camp when he met Garden City head coach Jeff Sims. When an opening on staff was available, Sims called Misipeka, who talked it over with his wife before making the move while his family stayed back. It’s his first year of coaching at the college level.
“It’s a blessing to be part of this program, to help see it through,” said Misipeka, who graduated from Samoana High School in American Samoa. “We brought in about 12 kids from Hawaii and American Samoa. I told them, it’s not easy, but only if you make it hard for yourself. If you go to class, do the work, buy into the process, you will succeed. They see it and they’ve bought into it.”
Though recruiters are making Hawaii a major destination these days, it’s hard to beat Garden City’s strength of location.
“We have Nebraska right above us. Right below is we have Oklahoma and Tulsa. West, we have Colorado and east it’s Missouri,” Misipeka said. “Our guys can utilize the opportunity being surrounded by all these programs.”
Garden City, like many two-year schools, offers enough to student-athletes to make the transition easy. As Ta‘amu, the New Mexico Military Institute and former Pearl City quarterback learned, junior colleges in California don’t offer a lot of aid, let alone housing.
“I’m a JUCO product and I went to school in California. I was fortunate enough to stay with family and that’s where I got help,” Misipeka said. “With our position, we’re able to offer partial scholarships and we do have housing and we do have meal plans seven days a week. That’s one thing that separates us from a lot of programs. The kids from Hawaii don’t have to go and scavenge to look for their next meal.”
The only major challenge might be getting over the frosty weather in the winter. So far, so good.
“The thing is, the talented is so flooded on the West Coast, an opportunity in the Midwest, they’ll be able to showcase themselves, and also to the East Coast programs,” Misipeka said. “They’re looking for Polynesian talent.”
Misipeka is not just teaching skills on and off the field. He’s a persuader and mentor.
“It actually took a long time for him to convince me to come to Kansas,” Kaaiawaawa said. “Coach said there would be other Polynesian players coming, too, and he would keep us all together to make Kansas feel like home.”
That is certainly true. With some Polynesia power, Garden City is now the home of national champions.