HANGING TOUGH

Core of captains ready to take season’s challenges

by Lanaly Cabalo – THE GARDEN ISLAND

Unifying the Kapa‘a High School Warriors is a quartet of seniors determined to turn the rocky football program around. The Eastside school has endured 17 losing seasons and has gone through coaches faster than players go through cleats.

But a new coach in place with a solid winning record and a more disciplined team, the senior captains Ekolu Yam, Ikaika Fuerte, Caleb Sarsona and Maika‘i Kuhaulua believe they can take over control of the Kaua‘i Interscholastic Federation, even if it isn’t during their tenure.

Nearly everything has been revamped. Head coach Keli‘i Morgado, and 1989 Kapa‘a graduate Kurt Osaki — who designed logos for the NFL and the University of Hawai‘i — inked a deal to create a new look for the team, the coaches have implemented harder practices and there is now a heavy focus on the players’ reputations within the school’s hallways and in the community.

Yam, Fuerte, Sarsona and Kuhaulua have essentially become extensions of the coaching staff and know how and when to take charge of their squad.

“We’re trying to get everyone together as one,” Yam said. “We’re working harder than before to make this team successful. We’re pushing ourselves.”

The players voted these four to be the captains and they haven’t been taking their responsibilities lightly. They’ve stepped up their practice ethics and attitudes so that the players would have role models to look up to and follow. “Captains need to always lead by example on the field and off it. I don’t believe in captains who yell and intimidate other players. I believe in guys who work hard in the weight room and the classroom and (these captains) definitely fulfill the requirements,” Morgado said.

Morgado said he analyzed the team over the course of the spring and summer workouts and that Yam, Fuerte, Sarsona and Kuhaulua would have been his picks as well. Morgado used the team’s voting process to see if they were all on the same page as far as rebuilding the program was concerned.

They all passed and a renaissance began.

“High school football is not only what you see on Friday nights. There’s a lot of responsibilities involved in being a football player,” Morgado said. “They’re probably the most recognizable at school because football is the biggest sport and because of that, they’ve got a responsibility to study, be in the community and to get good grades. I hold them to those responsibilities.”

Their first major test came at the season opener against Waimea High School. As the Warriors continued to fall apart at Hanapepe Stadium, the captains had to pull up a devastated team to try and finish that game out strongly.

“As captains, we told them to keep their heads up and to stay in the game,” Yam said.

The Warriors lost 49-7 which made the bus ride nearly 30 miles back to Kapa‘a a long one.

“It was harsh,” Yam said. “We were all thinking about what we could have done.”

Kuhaulua said some of the players felt angry and frustrated.

“They were disappointed. They felt let down by the system,” he said. “But everyone knows what they did now.”

And Kuhaulua seems to think that their shaky start has motivated them even more to turn the program around fast.

“Everyone wants it more now. After getting your butt kicked, you want to win,” Kuhaulua said.

This means everyone has to know their positions and know what they do when they get there. It’s this core of captains who hope to show them how it’s done.

Yam will have to take Morgado’s run-and-shoot offense and get his teammates on board. Fuerte, already a successful soccer player, will have to use his athleticism to catch and run for touchdowns. Sarsona has to continue finding openings in the defense. Kuhaulua has to lead the offensive unit into protecting the quarterback.

THE QUARTERBACK

Ekolu Yam

Age: 16

Family: Parents Luther and Paulette Yam, brothers Jonathan, Steven, Thomas and Christopher, sisters Kristen and Alexi-Anne

Hometown: Kapa‘a

Yam has been with the program ever since his freshman year. Prior to that, he himself was unsure where his football career was headed, having bounced around from running back to tight end and to receiver before finally settling in as a QB.

Having also gone through so many systems because of revolving door that was the coaching staff, Yam has had to learn yet another one. And a complicated one at that.

“I didn’t feel more pressure on myself (knowing Morgado would implement a pass-happy offense),” Yam said. “I was a little nervous, because I wasn’t much of a passer, but not too much. I just go in there and play hard.”

Yam feels he’s picked it up pretty well for only practicing it for six months. He’s also learned how to read defenses better and said that to show dedication to the team, he’s been working on his accuracy and throwing more routes.

“You have to keep working on it to get better,” he said.

THE WIDE RECEIVER

Ikaika Fuerte

Age: 17

Family: Parents Todd and Denise Fuerte

Hometown: Kapa‘a

Ikaika Fuerte was on the soccer team that went all the way to the state championship finals last year and he brings his speed and quickness to the team.

But he almost didn’t even play.

Having played one year, he wasn’t exactly happy with the program and decided not to play again. All that changed with the announcement that Morgado would be the new head coach.

“I thought he could teach me a lot of the right things, like how to take three steps and fly,” Fuerte said.

He rejoined this team because he believe that this squad with Morgado could make a difference.

“All of the kids pay attention to him when he’s talking,” Fuerte said. “I think because he’s won four KIF titles, we think he can do it here.”

Fuerte knew though that it wouldn’t be easy but signed on anyway and wants to do his part to get everyone to realize Kapa‘a can get better.

“Some kids don’t want to practice because it’s too hard,” he said. “We have to get it in their heads that practice makes perfect if we want to win games. It’s crucial that we get a win to change everything. In the second round, we’re going to surprise everybody else.”

THE RUNNING BACK

Caleb Sarsona

Age: 17

Family: Parents Peter and Ramona, brothers Isaiah, Gabe and Lot

Home: Kapa‘a

Caleb Sarsona is also a football and soccer player. Sarsona is a veteran running back and Morgado has said Sarsona was one of the most talented ones he’s ever seen.

Sarsona felt good about the team even before Morgado accepted the coaching position and got more confident afterward.

“I thought he would come here and help me get faster and stronger,” said Sarsona, who has been the Warriors’ leading rusher.

In preseason, Sarsona ran for a 84-yard touchdown and lifted Kapa‘a to a victory over Waiakea High School.

“We want to win KIF,” he said. “I think it’s possible if everyone continues to work hard,” he said.

THE LINEBACKER

Maika‘i Kuhaulua

Age: 17

Family: Parents Ben and Tracy, brothers Ben, Pepe and Kalani, sisters Lina, Nani and Tita

Maika‘i Kuhaulua probably has the strongest football background out of all the captains. His father, Ben, played briefly in the semi-pro league here in Hawai‘i.

As soon as he was old enough and big enough, he started playing too, starting with Pop Warner. Once he hit his growth spurt right before his sophomore year, he joined the Warrior squad, but like Fuerte, wasn’t too happy with what he saw in the program.

“The other guys thought it was going to be all cruise and they didn’t take it seriously,” he said. “I like it now. It’s tiring because the practices are a lot harder, but it’s worth it.”

He said the attitudes back then were horrible. He felt some of the players were arrogant despite not proving they were worthy of that type of behavior. He doesn’t see any of that now and is now proud to be the captain.

“If we stay like this, Kapa‘a will one day be the champions again,” he said.

• Lanaly Cabalo, sports editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or lcabalo@kauaipubco.com

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