KAHULUI - Hidden beneath the steep slopes of Kahului Community Center, dozens of adults and children have gathered for the past few months to play a sport that has quickly become one of Maui's strongest - rugby.
If the participants are looking for a player to emulate, they have plenty of choices.
At 19 years old, Vili Tolutau has already played on four U.S. national teams. The Baldwin High School graduate recently was offered a scholarship to play at Central Washington University, which he declined in order to play professionally while attending Minnesota.
Muna Litelolohea, a 9-year-old from Kahului, takes part in a rugby scrimmage Wednesday evening at Kahului Community Center
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
Vili Tolutau (right) and Ben Ned compete for a ball during Wednesday’s scrimmage
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
"I guess it's in my blood," he said.
Tolutau is one of a handful of Mana O Maui Rugby Club athletes who have gone on to play for professional clubs and national teams. Lahainaluna graduate Pila Taufa, 23, has played on three U.S. teams and is vying for a spot on the 2016 Olympic squad. Maui High grad Solomone Anitema, 19, played on two national teams.
"It was an eye-opening experience seeing other teams," Tolutau said of playing matches in South America and Europe.
Tolutau, who played football in high school, began participating in rugby in the 6th grade. Since then, "I've been practicing almost every day," he said.
"Sometimes after football practice I would come over and run with the guys," he said. "It was good I loved the game."
Before he was introduced to the sport, however, the club itself needed to be formed. Jack Breen, a retired lawyer from Philadelphia, made that possible.
Breen, who played rugby for 16 years in 10 countries, moved to Maui in 1989. He sought to bring the sport to the island for years, and finally started Mana O Maui in 2007.
"One kid came to practice," he said. "We had six practices and I just trained him one-on-one."
"I thought there was going to be a lot of guys," said that lone player, Joshua Aquinde, still part of the club - the Kamehameha Maui graduate, who captained his college team at Cal Lutheran until 2011, trained with Breen for about a month before they reached out to players in Lahaina and began building the program.
Walking out to the field on Tuesday, Breen, Aquinde and Tolutau were lost in a crowd of players preparing for the Sia Siakumi Youth Memorial Tournament, scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Keopuolani Park's "Pit" field.
"The level of players here is exciting to see," Aquinde said. "There's a lot of talent here, but the league is still growing."
Maui will compete against the Kalihi Raiders from Oahu in three age divisions for males. The event will have two divisions for females.
"I don't think there's any nerves," said Vasiti Lolohea, a women's captain.
"They're glad we actually have a team so they're much more happy than nervous."
Vasiti was on a women's team from Maui that played a match earlier this year on Oahu. She was part of a group of about 20 teens and adult women practicing Tuesday.
"We first started out with about two or three of us and we used to play with the boys," she said. "The fact that the teams are coming here to play, I think has drawn more girls out."
Akapei Aholelei, a junior-to-be at Maui High and a girls team captain, remembers "begging people to come to the next practice."
"Then they finally came," she said. "I'm really glad I stayed in this club."
Breen said in preparation for the tournament, he has been teaching younger players how to pass, run and use proper tackling technique. The coaches, including Pita Totau, a former U.S. national club champion, borrow elements of football, basketball and even cheerleading to help train the youths.
"It's a big team game, so we spend a lot of time with teamwork," Breen said. "There's a lot of pressure with getting tackled so we spend a lot of time with self-confidence and decision-making."
Observing the field of players, Breen said he was proud of how far the club has come.
"We had 50 the other night at Kahului," he said.
And, of course, there are the elite-level players who have come out of the program, including Tolutau, "probably the top 19-year-old in the whole country," Breen said.
"Playing nationally - the fact that we have more than one kid on Maui, let alone in Hawaii, is amazing."
* Chris Sugidono is at email@example.com