Lanai Lads Take Historic Spotlight
My mind is still reeling over the historic football game Sept. 13, when Lanai High School faced off against Molokai High School. For the Lanai Pine Lads, the event was not just about winning, it was about how they played the game and the sweet spirit that touched more than 400 cheering fans that mattered most. The game was played earlier to accommodate the visiting team, the Farmers, who had to catch ferries from Lanai and Maui to return home. But the focus was on Lanai that day.
“The student-athletes had an opportunity to play and live out their dreams. This is a win-win situation for our school and our community. It is about participating in the eight-man football league and making history, which we did,” says Lanai High athletic director Roderick Sumagit.
The last high school football game on the island was played 61 years ago, and the last time I saw residents so euphoric was some 20 years back at the opening of the first ever Lanai Pineapple Festival, when I was director of the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. Back then, I witnessed residents having chickenskin and goose bumps over the island’s celebration commemorating Lanai’s sweet pineapple industry.
At the invitation of home team coach Stephen Ferguson, I was privileged to once again be invited to the island to participate in the game’s opening ceremonies. Besides giving the opening-day speech, I was asked to release a flock of white doves into the bright blue sky to honor one of Lanai’s beloved matriarchs, Aunty Mamo Fernandez, whose funeral services were held that day. The birds soared toward the heavens, an inspirational memorial that symbolized freedom and set the tone for two sets of eight-man football teams, which marked their spot in history and created unforgettable memories.
“We were excited to get Lanai’s first game started,” says Coach Fergie, who has been coaching various sports on Lanai for 20 years. “The initial goal was to get a team on the island. We reached that goal, and now the future remains bright for our football program.”
The final score of 33-0 was insignificant for Fergie’s squad. It was all about bringing back a game they have been deprived of for more than six decades. Even the top brass of Pulama Lanai, COO Kurt Matsumoto, who leads a diverse management team that works with the Lanai community and paid to build the football field, vividly recalled during the game memories of his dad playing football for the Pine Lads back in the day. Matsumoto and his management team were there, side by side with students, parents and boosters, giving their beloved gridiron team all the cheering and support they needed to get through their first contest. The team’s obvious first-half jitters started to dissipate and their confidence grew stronger during the second half, as they battled the Farmers on almost even terms. Molokai was the superior team in terms of experience and size, but it warmed my heart to see the smaller Lanai unit fight to the finish and never give up. It was a clean, well-officiated game, with players on both teams displaying excellent sportsmanship.
Senior Derec Kahananui, 17, played the game of his life. The Lanai quarterback and his team had only two months to practice.
“Although the boys from Molokai High had more experience playing in football games than we did, we showed up and competed to the end,” Kahananui says.
He adds that their first game showed that it’s OK to be small in stature to play ball: “We don’t have the biggest guys. We have shorter, more scrawny players, but our team showed we were united and had a big heart.”
It was only natural for Kahananui to slip into the quarterback position, since he had been throwing ball with his father, Sid Alejado, since age 8, and Alejado serves as an assistant coach at the school. Alejado was once a wide receiver for Pearl City High. Kahananui’s grandfather also played football and currently coaches for Waipahu High.
“I’ve been throwing football with Derec since his hanabata days, and teaching him how to read defenses, coaching him how throw to open receivers and showing him how to be calm in the pocket,” says Alejado.
“We played our hearts out and we were psyched, and know that in future games we can be better,” says sophomore Luke John Paleke Sandi, whose mother Bonita was one of the pioneers, along with other community members, who banded together to start a youth football team on Lanai seven years ago. That pee-wee sports program was under the consultation of Sumagit, Ferguson and Alejado. It kick-started the community’s desire to start Lanai High School’s football program today.
The story of the Pine Lads reminds me of the feature-length movie turned NBC series Friday Night Lights. For this historic football game on Lanai, it was art imitating life, and this real-life show could easily be called “Saturday Morning Lights” and the day the Pine Lads of Lanai made history.