LAHAINA - As the West Maui sun bakes "The Imu," Lahainaluna High School's shiny, year-old $4 million Matrix Field turf rises like an oasis.
As young as the playing surface is at the 180-year-old school, the 2011 version of the football team may be younger.
Last year, they said goodbye to three-year starting quarterback T.J. Rickard, as well as Mitchell Loewen, the Maui Interscholastic League Defensive Player of the Year now walking on at Arkansas - they were part of a senior class that won four straight MIL Division II titles, including a share of the overall crown with Baldwin in 2009.
Tytus Lucas and Lahainaluna High School went 1-1 in the preseason, and will play in the first game on the Maui Interscholastic League schedule Saturday at “The Imu” against King Kekaulike.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Kiko Kohler-Fonohema took every Lahainaluna snap in the team’s two preseason games, and passed for 110 yards while rushing for 53.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Back is one starter, two-way lineman Feleti Taufa. The 44-player roster includes six freshmen - three of whom started and played both ways in a season-opening 14-0 loss to Pac-Five - and just 14 seniors.
Throw in 11 players who missed the nonleague opener with academic difficulties, as well as injuries to three starters - J.R. Kenolio-Dusenberry, a slotback-defensive back who broke his arm against Pac-Five, wide receiver-defensive back John Mishima (broken leg) and linebacker John Lacuesta (knee) - plus only five players listed at more than 210 pounds, and the picture becomes clearer.
Just how up and down this team may be this season was reflected in Lahainaluna's 26-6 win over Keaau in the second and final nonleague game, when nine of the academic casualties returned.
Lunas at a glance
Returning starters-2 (1 offense, 1 defense)
2010 record-7-3 (6-2 MIL), lost to Kaimuki in D-II state semifinals.
Saturday, Aug. 13-Pac-Five 14, Lahainaluna 0
Saturday, Aug. 20-Lahainaluna 26, Keaau 6
Saturday-vs. King Kekaulike, 1:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 2-vs. Baldwin at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 16-vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 24-vs. Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 15-vs. Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 21-at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 29-vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 4-vs. Baldwin at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
"I cannot remember that few starters or this much freshmen," said co-head coach Garret Tihada, who has been on the Lunas' staff for 24 years. "If we get one (varsity) freshman every 10 years, that is pretty incredible."
Taufa, who had two sacks in each of the nonleague games, is the unquestioned leader of the team, according to Tihada.
"It is really important, I think these guys are going to follow his lead," Tihada said of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior. "He is a real quiet guy, he leads by example."
Kiko Kohler-Fonohema, a sophomore, started his first game at quarterback, varsity or junior varsity, against the Wolfpack. He took every snap in the two nonleague games and completed eight of 12 passes for 110 yards while running 16 times for 53 yards.
"It is the same thing Baldwin had to do last year with their quarterback (Keelan Ewaliko)," Tihada said. "He didn't play his freshman year and he ended up being the (MIL Offensive) Player of the Year. It is not impossible, but it is
hard, especially at quarterback. There are so many things you have got to be in control of. You have to know the situation, you have got to know the defense, you have got to know your audibles, so I just limit things a little bit for him."
Freshmen Robert Campos, Scott Medeiros-Tangatailoa and Jared Rocha were two-way backfield starters the first week, and all played extensively against Keaau. Hercules Mata-afa, a sophomore, played tight end and defensive lineman in each game.
"It is hard, you have to take things a little bit slower," Tihada said. "We have to keep reminding ourselves how young these guys are. Besides the freshmen, we had a few sophomores who also played two ways, and a couple of our juniors, this is their first year with (the varsity) also."
Tihada said the six-time defending champion Bears are clearly the team to beat for the overall MIL crown. When Lahainaluna takes on Baldwin for the first time Sept. 2, it will be the Lunas' fourth game of the season, but just the second for the Bears.
"Every year, by far, they have a lot of big, strong, fast kids," Tihada said. "They are incredible. When we meet them I don't think it matters at all. They are so big and strong, I don't know how you can prepare for something like that."
Tihada said his young players are picking things up "slowly, very slowly."
With that in mind, the Lunas are running "about five" base offensive plays at this point, when a modest 20 is the norm for the flexbone offense.
"We usually are a little more advanced, at least at this time of the year," Tihada said. "There is no sense putting in something you can't do. We just need to make sure, fundamentally, we are getting better."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com