There’s a reason Kealakehe is always in the running for a title at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation canoe paddling championships.
It’s not just about finding the right combination or the right tempo on strokes; it’s also about the intangible such as team chemistry, as exemplified by Lorelei Nakagawa.
And she doesn’t even paddle for the Waveriders.
Nakagawa is a 2012 Kealakehe graduate who helps the team when she’s not in class at Hawaii Community College.
She was at Hilo Bay on Saturday, encouraging paddlers and showing her appreciation at the end of the day. As a thank-you gesture, Nakagawa passed out bags of nuts. Her message: Teamwork trumps everything.
That’s the advice she passed down to her sister Leisha Nakagawa, a sophomore stroker, who piloted the mixed crew to a BIIF title on Saturday.
“She taught me to work hard for the people behind you,” said Leisha, who was on the junior varsity last season. “It’s good to carry on that sister tradition.”
Leisha got her first BIIF championship medal and lost a chance at another when her girls crew buried the flag and was disqualified. Lorelei was the stroker when the Waveriders won a girls league title in 2012.
Before Saturday, that was the last time a school won two out of the three BIIF titles. No school has pocketed all three championships in the BIIF’s 13-year history of canoe paddling.
Keaau came close Saturday, capturing the boys and girls crowns. But after the Waverider girls were DQ’d, the mixed crew paddled with determination.
“That was a big motivation for us,” Leisha Nakagawa said. “We were all bummed when we were DQ’d. We had the lead and lost it. But I’m super stoked with the mixed title. We’ve worked hard on the mixed crew throughout the season.”
Kealakehe coach Mike Atwood doesn’t just stand on the beach barking encouragement. His eagle eyes are always working. His scouting helped in the last race.
“We learned from our boys race that our start was not good at all,” he said. “We had to bring our stroke rate up. For the girls race, we learned what not to do at the turn. The girls turned too close and buried the flag. We put that together and benefited from our mistakes.
“Keaau brought their ‘A’ game and made it tough in every race. It’ll take depth to win all three races. It’ll help if you have people resting, especially with the boys and girls going out back to back.”
Atwood noticed the toughness of all the crew, perhaps a good sign for BIIF teams at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
“It was good to see to see at the end of the season the competitiveness, especially the JV races that were close,” he said. “That good competition raises our level each time we go out. It’s good that any one of us, Keaau, Parker, Kona, are constantly one or two.
“Overall, the competition from the crews got better as the season went along and crews didn’t peak early. You could see that with the times and how crews blended.”
Ask anyone in Honokaa what sport is the most popular at the school and the likely answer is soccer or basketball.
That matters little to longtime coaches Uncle Manny Veincent and Lisa Korenaga, who were there from canoe paddling’s BIIF start in 2002. They’re also coaches at the Kawaihae Canoe Club.
“We’ve got a lot of paddling challenges at the school,” said Uncle Manny, still looking sharp in his trademark white T-shirt and red-and-white shorts. “Most kids will play soccer or basketball. We get a lot of seniors who have never paddled before. We’ve got a lot of freshmen and it’s good for the kids.”
In what was the closest half-mile race of the day, Honokaa’s boys (Kenika Peters, Jodice Popovich Pung, Kaleo Carpio, Kainalu Hively, Isaac Carpio and Andrew Connors) edged Parker for fourth place, claiming the last spot to states.
Hively is a two-year starter as a senior. He was part of the boys and mixed crew that went to states last year.
“We were missing some members from last year. We were training new guys,” he said. “It was a struggle but we did good today. I’m happy we’re going states.”
Kaleo Carpio, another senior, has three years of paddling experience at Honokaa and also has been paddling for Kawaihae the last three summers. He understands the effort to make a canoe move faster and cleaner.
“It takes everybody working together as a crew, with the same mindset,” he said. “It comes down to practice. How you practice is how you will perform. That’s a definitely true fact.”
Besides Isaac Carpio, Kaleo Carpio has another cousin in Peters, a senior stroker.
“It’s my first year padding. This past summer I paddled with Kawaihae,” said Peters, who ran cross country for two years and wrestled last year. “My cousin Kaleo got me into it. I tried paddling and ended up liking it.”
He was on Kawaihae’s 18 boys crew that went to the Hawaii Canoe Racing Association state regatta last summer. But Peters’ first trip as a Dragon is memorable, too.
“It’s amazing that we made it,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, we said no matter how hard it is we’ll make it.”