POP WARNER NATIONAL CHAMPIONS

LIHU’E — Credit for the Pop Warner Division II National Championship should go to the community.

That message was echoed over and over during a special tribute to the Lihu’e Patriots Pee Wee team that earned the first Hawai’i Pop Warner national championship on Dec. 9.

Leonard Peters, one of three University of Hawai’i football players who made the trip here for Sunday’s celebration, said he was born in Samoa, but grew up in Kahuku where he was raised “not by my parents, but the community.”

Peters added, “It’s fun to play football, but remember that education is first.”

Peters was accompanied here by fellow players Kenny Patton and defensive captain Lono Manners who delivered messages of staying drug-free while enjoying the sport.

Mel Rapozo, president of the Kaua’i Pop Warner Association, who along with Lihu’e Pop Warner Association President Gracie Grace, arranged the Sunday afternoon event, urged players to thank the many people who dug into their pockets to enable them to travel to Florida where they beat the San Jose Hollister Vikings, 14-0, to earn the trophy.

Parents, friends, and supporters lined Rice Street in anticipation of the football players’ arrival in 10 convertibles driven by Lihu’e Pop Warner Association volunteers.

The coaches and players converged at Eiwa Street for a short run down the lane fronting the historic county building as Kaua’i High School music director Darryl Miyasato fired up the Red Raider band for some football music that blended well with the cheering provided by the cheer squads from the JPW, PeeWee, and Midget squads of Lihu’e.

Edmund Acoba, the Wescon district commissioner, said the boys had to overcome myriad obstacles to win this championship.

In addition to having to make travel arrangements and raise funds in about a week’s time, Acoba said that the come-from-behind win over the Tampa Bandits was especially sweet for Hawai’i because, the Bandits, hailing from the Southwest Region, advanced seven of their eight teams in the play-offs, the Bandits being the only one dropped by the Patriots.

But before the game, Acoba said the boys had a five-hour time difference while the Bandits hailed from only a bus ride away. When Lihu’e arrived at Celebrity Hall, Acoba said their rooms weren’t ready, and as a means of keeping the boys occupied, the coaches took them to a McDonald’s to eat and try to collect themselves following the long plane ride.

Add to that the distraction of the theme parks that are only a bus ride away, and the impending championship game.

During the Hollister game, Acoba said the Vikings appeared to have brought their entire community dressed in loud colors and armed with equally loud noisemakers.

“What did the boys feel? Especially when they were in the territory where the noisemakers and fans were the loudest?” Acoba asked. “Taran Tani was taken out on a spearing play; Travis Koga was hurting following a cut tackle, but Acoba said he heard one boy say, ‘We’re going home with the trophy!’ “

“All the conditioning paid off after three-and-a-half quarters of solid defense,” Acoba said. Lihu’e scored first, and followed it up with another score in the final minutes of the game. “They made Kaua’i proud.”

Acoba said he hoped the boys learned from this experience. “The first step to being a winner was the choice made by these players on Aug. 1 when they chose to play,” he said.

Acoba added that of the eight teams fielded by the Wescon Region that covers Hawai’i, Southern California, Southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Mexico, and Guam, the Lihu’e Patriots were the only team to bring home a championship.

In addition to Lihu’e, the Kekaha Panthers came home with second place, the Hanapepe Colts earned eighth place, the Lihu’e JPW finished 19th, and the Lihu’e PW finished in 11th place.

Roy Oyama was one of the first people to call when notice of Sunday’s event went public, Rapozo said.

Representing the Kaua’i Farm Bureau, Oyama expressed his pride in the team’s accomplishments, and appreciation for the Kaua’i Pop Warner presence at the Kaua’i County Farm Bureau Fair every year where they prepare, cook, and sell malasada.

Oyama said Lihu’e, Koloa, and Kekaha have always been part of the farm fair, and as the Farm Bureau’s way of appreciating the team’s accomplishment, presented Grace with a $2,000 contribution.

Additionally, Bav’el Tani, one of the Lihu’e parents, noted the tremendous outpouring from the community “from Kapa’a, Hanalei, all the way to Kekaha” so the team could travel as one, play as one, and enjoy the championship as one.

Tani said that when arrangements were being made, one player was unable to go due to family financial hardship, but thanks to community contributions, every member of the team went.

Rapozo also acknowledged the generosity of Larry Bowman of Falko Partners who stopped by practice one day this season to present a contribution of $15,000 toward the association’s $30,000-plus need for replacing worn and recycled equipment.

Certificates of recognition and player certificates of achievements were bestowed upon the team by representatives of Congressman Ed Case, the governor’s office, state Senate, state House of Representatives and the County Council.

The accolades were capped by Kaua’i Mayor Bryan Baptiste declaring Dec. 16 as Lihu’e Patriot Pee Wee Day “because that is something I can do, and the others can’t.”

Coach Mario Longboy, obviously unaccustomed to such pomp and ceremony, gave credit to his coaching staff, players, and their parents. At the encouragement of Rapozo, Nadine Longboy was called to the stage for recognition as “the wife that is behind every great coach.”

Rapozo said Longboy has been coaching for the past seven years, and while other people may worry about what color uniform, logos, and other items, Longboy would always say, “I don’t care what color uniform, or where the logo goes, I just want to play football.”

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