- Jeff Miller
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HONOLULU -- In late April, it appeared this could be a bizarre athletic year at Punahou School (Honolulu). The best Hawaiian word to describe it might be kapakahi, which loosely means "all mixed up."
The longtime Hawaii power has won every state title from baseball to volleyball to judo to air riflery, every title, that is, but football. But Punahou changed that last fall, and included a Hawaii state football championship to its repertoire. The baseball team, winner of the last five Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I crowns, lost on April 28 to Iolani School (Honolulu) to drop the Buff 'n Blue's record to 10-8, and making it only possible for them to reach third-place in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu's postseason tournament.
The winner would claim the league's last berth in the 12-team state tournament, the loser would go home. But even with a win, claiming a sixth straight title would require the Buff 'n Blue to win four games in four days.
And that's just what Punahou did. The Buff 'n Blue won all five games by one or two runs in unusual, heart-stopping fashion.
"Towards the end of the regular season, we had a team meeting and talked about what problems we had," junior right fielder Jeremy Ioane said. "From there, we just figured out that we should play together. From then on, we decided to win."
To head baseball coach Eric Kadooka, his team's unlikely path to the championship reflected what's demanded of Punahou students.
"Punahou kids often face a lot of pressure, starting with simply being accepted into the school," he said. "They learn what to do with second chances."
When the senior class graduates Saturday, there might not be an athletic group across the country that has claimed as many state championships. Punahou won 19 HHSAA titles in '08-09, after winning 16 the previous year and 13 each in '05-06 and '06-07. That's 61 state championships over the four-year period.
"It was an incredible year from that perspective, if that were the barometer we use for success," said Punahou athletic director Tom Holden, who is vacating the position after 27 years at the school, and 11 as A.D. "But I think there are lots of leadership opportunities. I think we hope that out of the team involvement, they come out with those kinds of tools."
Kadooka said he's reminded of what James Scott, school president, often tells Punahou athletes, "It's not so much about winning state championships as it is what kind of people you're going to be in 20 years."
You're familiar with one of Punahou's grads from 30 years ago. Barack Obama was a reserve on the 1978-79 basketball team. Joining the Commander-in-Chief among famous Punahou alums are Michelle Wie, who was a junior when she turned pro in 2005, and former NFL Pro-Bowler Mosi Tatupu.
Punahou is a K-12 private school located in the Manoa Valley on the outskirts of Honolulu, just north of Waikiki Beach. Founded in the 1840s, its enrollment has gone from primarily students from elite white families to a mix that better represents its surrounding community. The Buff 'n Blue nickname comes from the school colors of blue and buff (tan), representing surf and sand.
It's one of 27 private schools that make up the ILH, one of five leagues in the 92-member state high school athletic association. With a high school enrollment of about 1,700, Punahou is slightly larger than average, according to Keith Amemiya, HHSAA executive director.
"Their success brings national recognition to Hawaii and raises the bar of excellence," Amemiya said. "And let me point out that in many of those state championship games, Punahou faced formidable opponents."
"It's small state, so it doesn't represent maybe what other states would have to go through to get to a state championship," said Holden, who grew up in Ohio. "We produce great athletes, but we don't get the week in, week out [competition] like the mainland does. We travel to tournaments on the mainland; it's a reality check sometimes."
Seven seniors received scholarships this year to play NCAA Division I athletics, and another four will play for Ivy League schools. Punahou also claimed four of the 12 spots in the prestigious state athletics senior Hall of Honor: linebacker Manti Te'o, tennis player Kristin Lim, soccer player Aisha Price and swimmer Christel Simms.
Holden sees the alumni support as a key factor to athletic success.
"We like to say you're playing for all those people who came before you and all those that are yet to come," Holden said. "We constantly have football, tennis and baseball players coming back to visit." When the President hit the Punahou basketball court during a campaign visit, Holden said he was just "one of the boys."
The current stars made some memorable headlines this year.
• The baseball team, losing seven starters from the '08 title team, was seeded ninth in the state tournament after rallying from a 4-0 deficit to beat Mid-Pacific (Honolulu) 6-5 in the ILH qualifier. In the tournament opener against Campbell (Ewa Beach), Punahou scored two unearned runs in the first inning on a pop-up, apparently lost in the lights, and won 2-0. In the 3-1 quarterfinal upset of top-seeded Pearl City, Punahou successfully appealed that an opposing runner missed third base on his way home.
Punahou beat Kamehameha (Honolulu) 2-0 in the semifinals by scoring two runs in the top of the ninth inning. The inning was kept alive with two outs by a batter reaching on a disputed hit by pitch. In the championship win over Kailua, the Buff 'n Blue won 3-2 while collecting only three hits. The winning pitcher was freshman Zachery Muenster, who was promoted from the junior varsity after the regular season and only notched his first varsity win two days earlier against Pearl City.
"I don't really have an answer for how we did it," said Kadooka. "We've been real fortunate. We caught so many breaks, I try not to think about it."
• Hawaii's state football playoffs only started in 1999, replacing a format that matched the best public school and private school in what was called the Prep Bowl. Punahou never won a Prep Bowl and played in only one previous state final game (2005), losing in the closing seconds. When Punahou won the ILH in '05 en route to that state final date, it marked the school's first league football title since 1977.
Holden speculates football lagged behind other sports because of Punahou's large number of successful programs has drawn some of the better athletes away from it. Last fall, Punahou completed a 12-1 season with a 38-7 win over defending champion Leilehua (Honolulu).
That title squad featured four Buff 'n Blue seniors who have signed to play NCAA Bowl Subdivision Football: Te'o and receiver Robbie Toma at Notre Dame, tight end Kimo Makaula at Washington and quarterback Cayman Shutter just a few miles away at Hawaii.
Ioane, 5-foot-10 and 185-pounds, also played on the football team, as a safety and a linebacker. He's being recruited for football and baseball and said he plans to continue playing both next year.
"I have a passion for both," he said. "Next year, just for fun, I might try basketball. And I was thinking about wrestling."
• Kristin Lim began her high school athletic career with a challenging family legacy to follow. Older brothers Robby and Mikey each won two tennis singles state titles.
Kristin won three singles titles as an upperclassman and a doubles title as a freshman, combining with sophomore Ashley Ohira. She also played forward on Punahou's state championship soccer team as a senior.
Four tennis championships and one soccer, and there's one more detail of her tennis career worth noting: she never lost a match.
Lim, headed to Cornell, said what she enjoyed the most about attending and competing for Punahou was "experiencing the diverse culture."
"We have students that come from financial aid and all facets of life," she said. "It's inspiring to play for something that large."
• Lastly there's Makoula. He played football, basketball and baseball. He played on four baseball state winners, the '07-08 basketball championship team and the '08 football titlists. He was part of six state championships, three of them during the 2008 calendar year.
Makoula cited the 2008 football team as his fondest memory. "Because it was the first time we ever won the state championship and in my senior year," he said.
"That was super exciting," Lim said of the football team's championship run. "Everyone's still raving about it."
With 19 state winners, it could be difficult to find time to celebrate them all.
"I think it exhibits the breadth of our programs that are competitive," Holden said, "and I think that's what we're most proud of."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4hEthan Sherwood Strauss