Every time I come across these Lahainaluna Lunas, they do something magical.
Some might call it surreal. Blissful. Spiritual. When I saw them hang on to win at Konawaena last week, they handled victory with respect and humility. Konawaena’s football ohana fed the Lunas after the game, long after the large crowd had emptied out of Julian Yates Field on a cool night in Kealakekua. Before eating, the Lunas all stood and thanked their hosts by singing. It was solemn and enlightening. After they finished their kaukau, before they left, they sang another song for their friends who had cooked the food, served their meal. Each song in Hawaiian.
Tonight, a week later, the same Lunas entered Aloha Stadium and did the unexpected. They won their first Division II football state championship, hanging on (again) for a 21-14 win over top-seeded Kapaa. After the game, moments after they sang their alma mater and the Doxology to their fans in the bleachers, they retreated to the lockerroom and broke into song again. That’s when I realized I had a video camera on me. And longtime co-head coaches Bobby Watson and Garret Tihada, and their staff could only stop, remain still and become engulfed by a season-long, life-long tradition of the football program at the oldest high school west of the Rockies (if I remember right). The Lunas were captivating in many ways this season, but it has often been that way since Tihada, and long before that, Watson, have been at the helm.
When I first met Coach Watson, it was around 1999 or 2000 and Lahainaluna had no stadium, not much parking and, very, very rarely, a home game. What the Lunas had was unbreakable tradition and discipline. Watson had already been long entrenched as the Lunas’ football coach, preaching and teaching the sport without compromise. Kaniela Tuipulotu was a svelte and gifted running back/tight end on the practice field, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound freshman, long before he transferred to Kahuku and went on to play defensive line at UH. Watson hasn’t budged, and neither has Tihada, over the years when it comes to bedrock-solid traditions and values as a team, as a school, as a community. More and more Lunas prospered on the gridiron and in the classroom, qualifying for college and continuing their playing careers. Big-time prospects, like Hercules Mata’afa (Oregon State) no longer feel the need to leave to get more exposure.
Coming into the universe of Lunas football is a bit of a time warp, maybe. But that, in today’s mad, mad world, is a very good thing, and it wasn’t hard to feel good for both Lahainaluna and Kapaa programs as they played for the title. Division II is alive and well, and tonight it showed fans the best of what football is about.
“It’s about hard work and old-fashioned country values,” Watson said, off camera. He never liked the camera. I don’t blame anyone for that.
Tihada is as consistent and unbending as Watson when it comes to the Lahainaluna standard. After three previous trips to the championship game, the fourth time did the trick.
“It’s great, but it’s all those other things, working out at 6 in the morning all off-season, trying to be good people throughout the year, making sacrifices, that’s the main thing. If you win a championship, it means nothing without that,” he said.
In an age when the easy way out is considered normal, when most young people don’t see any value in sweat, blood and sacrifice, the work being done at Lahainaluna — enrollment 900 — goes against the tide. Congratulations to the Lunas, Warriors and all our Division II brethren. Roots football might just be the best football there is.