PUKALANI - The Baldwin High School football team has grown accustomed to dominating the Maui Interscholastic League, with a 50-2-1 league record dating back to the 2004 season.
Last season was no different as the Bears rolled to an 8-0 run through the league, outscoring opponents 293-43.
This year, every other MIL coach labeled the Bears the favorites to take the league crown for a seventh season in a row, but the difference in 2011 may be the way Baldwin is expected to win - not with a record-setting offense, but with a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that limited MIL opponents to a league-best 146.6 yards per game in 2010.
Pasoni Tasini helped Baldwin High School limit Maui Interscholastic League opponents to 146.6 yards per game in 2010.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Two of those returnees are NCAA Division I prospects - defensive lineman Pasoni Tasini, who has already received scholarship offers from Utah, Nevada-Las Vegas and Hawaii, and linebacker B.J. Wilhelm-Ioane.
"This defense, compared to last year, we lost a little, but I think we are just as tough as last year," said Tasini, the MIL Athlete of the Year as a junior. "Last year we had a young defense and we didn't lose much, so we are just trying to work off our defense right now."
The offense has only three starters back, but one of them is reigning MIL Offensive Player of the Year Keelan Ewaliko, a junior quarterback who last season had an MIL-best 1,060 passing yards and 17 touchdown throws, 10 more than the next-best mark.
Bears at a glance
Returning starters-11 (3 offense, 8 defense)
2010 record-9-2 (8-0 MIL), lost to Leilehua in D-I state tournament first round
Today-vs. Edison (Calif.) at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 2-vs. Lahainaluna at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 9-vs. Kamehameha Maui at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17-at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 23-vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 7-at Kamehameha Maui, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 14-vs. King Kekaulike at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 22-vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 4-vs. Lahainaluna at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
When Tasini misses a ballcarrier or quarterback on the line - he will line up all over, according to Baldwin coach A.J. Roloos - Wilhelm-Ioane will be among those with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess.
"It is hard to tell on how the defense is going to be, but this is the most returning starters I have ever had on that side of the ball," Roloos said. "Pasoni will be huge. He is getting highly recruited and he is working hard in the classroom. It is tough for any team because you have got him up front and then B.J. in the middle. You are going to have to pick your poison."
Wilhelm-Ioane said that his bench-press maximum has increased 120 pounds from last year, to 345.
"I feel way stronger than last year and that helps me a lot on my striking against the linemen," he said.
Baldwin's lone nonleague game is tonight against Edison (Calif.) at War Memorial Stadium. The Bears do not play in the first week of the MIL regular season.
"We can be pretty good if everybody works together and if our backfield can cover, we will be good," Wilhelm-Ioane said. "The seniors are ready to lead us, help out the offense. With Pasoni Tasini at the end and Miki Fangatua in the middle, we can be really tough - those guys make my job easier, for sure."
On offense, the Bears' biggest question may be the line, where their only returning starter is center Jameson Kahalekai-Bermoy. The other starter back on offense is receiver Kaiana Camvel, who had 17 catches a year ago, fourth in the league, but just one touchdown. He and Kahalekai-Bermoy were second-team MIL All-Stars a year ago.
"I don't label our team as being the best, we didn't prove nothing yet this year," Roloos said. "We are going to be young on offense and everybody knows that, so our defense is going to carry us."
Ewaliko must find new targets after the departure of receivers Ro Wilson and Sheldon Leong, MIL first-team All-Stars each of the last two seasons. Wilson was second and Leong third on the league receiving list last year, with a combined 41 catches for 616 yards and nine touchdowns.
Potentially filling the void is Chazzen Sau, who would have been a candidate for quarterback last season if not for a knee injury.
"My role this year is just keep the team on track, be a leader this year because I wasn't really a leader last year," Ewaliko said. "Just lead the team well, make sure we are on track and pick up the team when we are down."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org