Warriors come home for Na Koa night

PUHI — The University of Hawai‘i has been keeping a close eye on Kaua‘i’s top football talent, with five current Warriors hailing from the Garden Isle. Head coach Greg McMackin hinted that UH won’t be stopping that practice any time soon.

“Of all the neighboring islands, this is the largest group we have — and we’re after two more that are still in high school that I can’t talk about,” he said Friday night at the Na Koa Football Club’s fundraiser at Kaua‘i Community College in Puhi.

All five current Warriors — seniors Kenny Estes, Jett Jasper and Vaughn Meatoga, sophomore Siasau “Saui” Matagiese and redshirt freshman Sean Shigematsu — were on hand to sign autographs and take pictures with guests, while McMackin also mingled with the crowd, even parting with his conference championship ring for a photo op.

“The people here are just outstanding,” McMackin said. “My wife and I love to come over here. We’ve come and done the two-mile walks and ridden in the parade and gone to the rodeo or the picnics. We’re from Oregon and this island reminds us more of Oregon because of the agriculture on the inside, but we have Hawai‘i on the outside of the island.”

Jasper, a 2006 graduate of Kaua‘i High School, noted how special it was to have the five Kaua‘i players representing UH, especially with the diversity among them.

“It’s really a unique experience,” he said. “It’s the first time all three high schools have been represented — Kapa‘a, Waimea and Kaua‘i High. I feel like the whole island is behind us and definitely roots for UH because of that.”

The five players all felt that support as each had his own signing table, where alumni and Na Koa supporters came over to talk story and get some signatures on various UH items.

Meatoga, a Kalaheo native and a starter at defensive tackle for all 14 games last season, said that he’s been impressed with what he has seen from the two younger Warriors, Shigematsu and Matagiese.

“I never knew Sean and Saui before, but I get to play against Sean and I work with Saui,” he said. “I get to see how good Sean is as an offensive lineman and he’s just scratched the surface of his potential. He’s going to be one of the best offensive tackles.

“Saui is one of the hardest-working defensive players,” Meatoga said. “A lot of the coaches brag about his work ethic. He just pops off the screen. You just turn on the film and you see him running from whistle to whistle, so coaches love him for that. These guys, we take them under our wing.”

That tough-nosed attitude is something Estes, a senior safety and 2006 graduate of Waimea High, has seen throughout the program in the 2011 season’s early stages.

“This year, we definitely have a hard-working team and we can see it in our workouts,” he said. “We kind of know where we want to get, the leaders just have to step up and bring the team together.”

One of the team’s leaders, both vocally and with his play, has been Meatoga. While on Kaua‘i last spring for a scrimmage, McMackin and his staff said that Meatoga — prior to even his junior season — had taken on a leadership role among the defensive players.

“He was a leader last year as a junior and with he and Kaniela (Tuipulotu), we’re as tough in the middle as anyone in the country,” McMackin said Friday. “Vaughn will be a leader this year, also. He’s weighing around 300 pounds, great attitude, great student. If a person was to live a good life, they’d be Vaughn Meatoga. He’s a special person.”

The 2010 Warrior team exceeded expectations levied upon it by preseason polls, which predicted Hawai‘i would be one of the bottom feeders within the Western Athletic Conference. As it turned out, the Warriors finished with a 7-1 conference mark and tied for the WAC championship with Boise State and Nevada.

“It was great just watching the guys play,” said Shigematsu, a 2010 Kapa‘a High graduate. “It was a good experience. Just going in there with a chip on our shoulder, being the underdog, it feels great coming out on top.”

It was the fourth time UH has won at least a share of the conference title, with the lone outright championship coming in 2007, when it went 8-0.

The team is already eyeing a fifth WAC title, which would be an historic one.

“The biggest key word I think you guys should know is ‘back to back,’ ” Jasper said. “That’s what we’re trying to do — back-to-back WAC champions. Never been done before by a University of Hawai‘i football team and we definitely want to achieve that.”

Accomplishing that goal will mean successfully replacing the productivity the team got from three offensive stars who were all selected in April’s NFL Draft — wide receivers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares and running back Alex Green. Having the ability to point to those selections and results is something that will only help McMackin and his staff in the recruiting process.

“We’re very proud of that,” McMackin said. “Number one, we want them to get their degree and those guys did get their degree. The second thing, we want to prepare them for as high as they can go in football. Through speed and quickness and learning the game, we use pro techniques to get them ready to play.”

The coach said the level of depth the team has had at the skill positions has allowed it to be patient with younger players and redshirt some of its top talent, with three or four receivers about to step in and get their opportunity.

“Miah Ostrowski is one of them,” he said. “Darius Bright is another, and two running backs that I think people will like. We sort of put the ‘run’ back in the run and shoot this year.”

Having to sit out last season after his transfer from Portland State, Matagiese is ready to contribute and still has three years of eligibility remaining at UH.

“I’m just excited to finally get back on the field,” he said. “I don’t have to sit outside and watch the games. (The coaches) told me I had a really good spring and they invited me to camp, so that’s a plus. If I do good in camp, hopefully I can get on the field more. They were talking about using me a lot on special teams, as well, because I’m a big guy that can move more. So we’ll see how that goes.”

Shigematsu’s redshirt season in 2010 keeps him eligible for four more years and the former dominant KIF lineman said everything about his freshman year has been good.

“It was great, a good learning experience,” he said. “The veterans really took us under their wing and showed us a pretty good time and I learned a lot from them. Right now I’m just focusing on where I’m at, playing at right tackle. I’m not really worried about if I’m going to start or anything like that. I’m just focusing on the plays and getting the system down.”

Friday night was three months to the day before the Warriors begin the season with a home game against the University of Colorado on Sept. 3.

As the team looks ahead to its final season as part of the WAC conference, it knows it likely won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2011. The holes left by graduating players won’t be patched up easily, yet the players are optimistic that the returning talent will again be greater than what the skeptics will account for.

“People don’t really know us,” McMackin said. “They don’t know the hearts of our players and coaches, they don’t know how hard they work.”

Meatoga concurred with his coach’s assessment.

“We’ve seen our potential and we really don’t see any ceiling,” he said.

• David Simon, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or by e-mailing dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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