LAHAINA - Like a fine red wine, the Lahainaluna High School football program gets better and better with age. The Lunas embark on the 2013 Maui Interscholastic League campaign as not only an elite team on the Valley Isle with a string of seven consecutive MIL Division II championships, but also a top ten-rated program in the state.
Guided by a veteran coaching staff with some 250 years of experience at the historic campus on the leeward foothills of Maui, the Lahainaluna Red Tide rolls on in its quest to reach the top of the D-II mountain.
The Lunas finished 12-2 overall (7-1 in the MIL) last year and have twice reached the championship final - in 2007 and 2012 - only to be turned back on both occasions by precision Iolani Raider teams of the urban Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
Last season's loss at Aloha Stadium was particularly disappointing, as the Lunas held the lead with a little over a minute to play, but lost the advantage to a furious Iolani drive for the go-ahead touchdown. The team then saw the curtain close with an interception deep in Raider territory.
However, losses like that one only serve to forge a deeper sense of mission - of tradition that carries Lahainaluna football forward to the next challenge. The true grit of the Lahaina community is manifested in that gridiron history from the days - almost 100 years ago - of barefoot football leagues and the intense interscholastic rivalries that have become a Maui tradition.
That golden tradition through the tenures of legendary Luna coaches Norman Oda, Henry "Bruno" Ariyoshi and Lanny Tihada, and into the current leadership of Bobby Watson, only gets deeper and stronger as the seasons roll by.
Watson, the dean of MIL coaches with over 30 years on the sidelines for the Lunas, is currently the defensive coordinator and co-head coach along with Garret Tihada, the offensive coordinator. They are representative of the family ties that carry the integrity of Lahainaluna football forward.
Mike Arakawa mentors the linebacking corps, Dean Rickard coaches the offensive line, and Clifford Corniel returned after a brief retirement - you just can't keep a good man down or away from Luna football - to lead the defensive line.
Kekoa Mowat works with the O-line, Joey Tihada helps the running backs, Kenui Watson coaches the defensive backs, and Randy Arakawa is the receivers coach.
Sonnie Waiohu (O-line, special teams) and Dal Magno (linebackers, special teams) serve double duty as coaches at the varsity and junior varsity level for the Lunas. Gene Elam, a veteran coach from Southern California, has signed on this year as a special teams coach.
According to Coach Garret, the 2013 Lunas are deep, big and strong.
"The core leadership of the team really stepped forward to make the commitment to the off-season training programs. They have dedicated themselves to be like the '97 team (Lahainaluna won the MIL title and Neighbor Island Championship) that set the bar for Olympic-style weight training here," he explained in the athletic complex locker room last week.
"The boys never took time off. From the end of last season and through the summer, they kept at it, were up here at six in the morning and now they are definitely bigger, stronger and faster."
There are 52 players on the roster that returns six starters on both offense and defense, with five or six seeing action on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the Lunas will set up in a shotgun wing "T" formation and run the ball - as they successfully have for so many seasons - about 80 percent of the time.
"We'll work on our passing game as the season moves on, but we want to establish the run first and then develop our passing attack. On defense, where we are maybe stronger than last year with our front line and linebackers, we'll usually line up in a 3-3 alignment," Garret said.
The Lunas are cautiously optimistic as they move through the eight-game MIL season against Baldwin, Maui High, Kamehameha Schools Maui, and King Kekaulike, and then hopefully into the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state playoffs in November.
"We need to take care of some academic issues and avoid the injury bug as much as possible, and if we keep working as hard as we have been, we'll be okay," he said.
"As always, we'd like to send our appreciation out to all of the wives and girlfriends of the coaches for putting up with us for another football season. Thanks also to Lawrence Kauhaahaa, Brian Okada and Coach Kenui Watson for their leadership with our weight program, and to the Friends of Lahainaluna Football for their continuing financial support of the program," Garret concluded.