by J. D. Wacker
“Once you’re a champion, you’re a champion forever,” Mayor Billy Kenoi addressed the Puna Panthers Pop Warner Midget Team prior to their championship game Saturday, November 1. His words became reality that night as the Panthers brought down the undefeated Westside Eagles, 20-18, on the wet and muddy field at Wong Stadium. However, as they raised their trophy high, and the rain continued to fall, they all knew that their recent victory was only a peak of what was a turbulent season for these young men, one young lady, their coaches, their families, and their community.
Registrations, fee collections, the beginning of school, medical exams, league requirements, report cards, fundraising, birth certificates, scheduling, age and weight restrictions, transportation, etc., etc. are all part of organizing a team and can take its toll on any team. The Puna Panthers endured much more.
Struggling economically, the Puna District is not exactly a Dallas suburb with multi-million dollar sports complexes where youth and high school football stadiums are more plush than most universities and rival some professional fields. Assembling a competitive team from an area of low incomes and population is no easy task in itself. This task was initiated five years ago by Keven Lee and is carried today by his father, Kel Lee, the team’s head coach and association president. He has the support of his wife Jackie, daughter Dayna, and his grandson Randen (his defensive coach). Also, he has devoted assistant coaches Kaipo Like and Jimmy and JayDeen Brown and medical assistant Ariel Brown at his side along with many others. Working a table on the corner in Pahoa, and working the phone and internet, Dayna worked tirelessly in the summer months to greet and welcome young athletes with dreams of putting on their cleats and pads and becoming Puna Panthers. Many had played together before, either in Pop Warner or flag football or both, but some new faces joined the team and were quickly made part of the family.
Practices started on the hot afternoons in early August at the field at Hawaiian Beaches Park. Heads-Up training, initiated by the NFL, was the first step in the program, as it was with all Pop Warner teams. Immediately, it was clear there was a generous supply of young talent on the midget squad (ages 12-15). But, then everything changed August 7th with the arrival of Hurricane Iselle. With trees and power lines down and heavy traffic made it difficult for the players who reside primarily in the worst hit neighborhoods from HPP to Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Shores, Nanawale and Leilani Estates, and Kapoho to get rides to practice, but they did. Lack of power for up to three weeks meant getting home quickly after practice to bathe in makeshift showers and do their homework before dark. Their field suffered some damage to its fences and driveways which all needed to be repaired prior to their upcoming games. Routine maintenance to the fields had to wait for weeks until cleanup from the storm was under control. The grass grew a little longer than normal as the team and its leaders continued to balance rebuilding their lives and building a team for the next several weeks.
Sunday, September 7, brought their first challenge on the field from the Champion Panaewa Ali’i. In front of a large crowd of excited fans, the Panthers started their season right with a 38-14 victory with an impressive mix of running and passing attacks. The Panthers followed that more wins, travelling to an all-out war on the field with the Wailoa Razorbacks, a rainy day battle with the Keaukaha Warriors, and a visit to the Ali’i, emerging with an undefeated 4-0 record. During this period, another foe began marching its way toward their town, their homes, and their field: the June 27th lava flow.
It was decided early that in order to avoid potential problems posed by the lava flow to reschedule all remaining games away from the Panthers’ Hawaiian Beaches field. So, their first game with the Ali’i became their only home game of the season and the Panthers would play the remainder of their games on the road. Throughout the season, the players and their families, coaches and staff faced the endless stay-or-go decision. Some moved and some stayed, but most faced hours of sorting and packing in preparation for moving. A few packed, moved their belongings to storage, and then moved back when the front stalled as rents on top of house payments became more than they could bare. Many have found themselves making payments on two homes as they wait for the lava to decide how they will proceed with their lives. But yet, somehow the Panther Nation prevailed and began to grow stronger. Maybe it was, in part, from Auntie Doreen’s (Coach Brown’s wife’s) cooking for concessions. Certainly, questions and predictions about the flow were heard off the field between parents and friends, but there was always an underlying source of energy that was drawing the Panthers closer together.
At 4-0, the Panthers were on top of their Big Island Eastern Division. The other teams shared wins and losses and it looked as if the team would cruise to a division title. That was not how the fierce Wailoa Razorbacks saw the future, however. They clawed and scratched, but the Panthers were not up to the challenge from the Razorbacks and suffered their first loss of the season, 27-18. At the end of what was another war on the field, the Panthers were tired and dejected. They felt as if they had let their coaches and their Puna community down, and most of all themselves down. Tears fell, but they knew that they could do better. After a few days of practice, they realized that the loss was a learning experience and would only make them stronger. They returned to the field the following week to start a new winning streak with a convincing 41-21 win over Keaukaha.
With renewed energy and a solid 5-1 record, the Panthers were poised to finish their regular season against Panaewa. This time, Hurricane Ana had other plans. Once again, with their lives sitting in the crosshairs of another violent storm, Pahoa and its Puna Panthers were in disbelief. They were just beginning to recover from the effects of what was technically “Tropical Storm” Iselle, and now Ana was on her way toward them. The game, whose outcome was meaningless to both teams’ post-season eligibility, was cancelled. On October 18th, Ana decided to spare Puna, for the most part, but still managed to add to what had already been a very stressful season. Starting August 1st, the Panthers’ season had experienced five wins, one loss, almost two hurricanes, and a continuing lava flow, all in the matter of a span of only a little more than two months.
From the start, the photographers from Paradise Photo and Design, Dave and J.D. Wacker of Keaau, who photograph several area events including Big Island Pop Warner football, knew the Panthers were special. They saw the talent, but they also saw the bond this team was forming. Every team has cheers and chants, but when the Panthers came together before every practice and every game and recited their prayer and chant, it was clear they meant what they said. It was more than just words. “Love on three- LOVE! Pride on three- PRIDE! PUNA STRONG! PUNA STRONG! PUNA STRONG!” ended the cheer. J.D. Wacker captured their energy on a video titled, “Puna Strong”, and shared it on Facebook. Within only a few days, the video had been seen and shared by over 6000 people from Pahoa to around the world. The Online Panther Nation had organized, and a never-ending list of shouts of encouragement began to accumulate. It was becoming more and more apparent that nothing, not hurricanes, not lava, nothing was going to take away the heart of the team and its community.
Besides its heart, the team enjoyed the talents of its players and the strength and conditioning established by their coaches. Two of its captains, brothers Kahiau and Keahi Walker, passed by oncoming blockers with their blazing speed to make an infinite number of tackles. The relentless endurance and determination of another captain, Keala Harris, troubled their opposition has he ran, took powerful hits and scored touchdowns on offense, while delivering one hit after another on defense. Finally, Captain Junior Santiago, led his team by leaving defenders in the dust and in the mud as he travelled down the field and repeatedly finding himself in the endzone. Quarterback Kaimi Like maintained control of the offense, threw several passes for long gains to several receivers, including Kepa La’a. Many opponents felt what it was like to be “hit by a girl” as defensive lineman Tiana Jones collected a long list of tackles. A strong offensive line and defensive line led the way for many others as they gained yards and gang tackled throughout the season. This combination of heart and talent plus a steady education from their coaches had prepared the Panther Midgets as they entered the 2014 Big Island Pop Warner Playoffs as East Side Champions.
The first round of playoffs meant a first seed and a longer trip for the Panthers to the Kealakehe High School Field, outside Kona, to face the Kau Lions. The Lions put up a good fight, but the talent-laden Panthers were too much for them. The Panthers returned home victorious, winning 26-15. The undefeated Westside Eagles beat the Keaukaha Warriors to earn their chance to face the Panthers in the Big Island Pop Warner Midget Championship, November 1st, at Wong Stadium in Hilo.
The lava flow made another impact on the Panthers’ season. In the week leading up to the championship game, some schools in Pahoa were closed temporarily and some were closed permanently. Some players were forced to leave their schools, and some were separated from their friends and regular teachers. All suffered from the unknown effects of what may come, but they still kept a positive attitude as they prepared for the upcoming game.
A day’s worth of rain the day before left the field at Wong Stadium saturated and slippery. Two mud pits protruded into the field as three prior championship games and the island’s punt, pass, and kick competition set the stage for the finale between the Eagles and the Panthers. Clearing skies allowed some of the muddy field to dry, but as the teams started their battle, the clouds and rain returned and stayed for most of the game. Prior to taking the field, the Panthers were inspired by a surprise guest in their locker room, Puna’s own very energetic Mayor Billy Kenoi urged the team to “Play the best game of their lives,” “win it for Puna,” and “at the end of the day, SMILE, and enjoy the moment!”
Confident, the Panthers took the field and joined together with their team prayer and Puna Jacks chant in front of the stadium crowd. Both teams were ready to play. One confrontation found a pack of Panther players on top of one Eagle in the middle of one of the pits of mud. The Eagles set the pace in the first half and led 12-8. Both teams hit hard and both teams suffered injuries, including the Panthers’ Kahiau Walker who suffered a broken wrist. As the rain continued to fall at halftime, the Panthers were visibly bothered by the loss of their teammate. As the teams returned for the second half, the weather continued to worsen and the lights were turned on to illuminate the combat which was beginning to resemble a late-season NFL game with muddied uniforms, dirty arms, hands, and legs. Eventually, injuries and time took its toll on the resilient Eagles who managed to score once more. The months of conditioning along with cheers of “Puna Strong” pushed the Panthers into the end zone twice. The extra points scored on a kick by Keahi Walker made the difference, and the Panthers held on to win, 20-18.
Candy lei adorned the Panther players along with their championship medals. An icewater bath adorned Coach Kel Lee as the rain still fell, but no spirits were dampened. Together, they received their first Big Island Pop Warner Midget Champion Trophy, which at about five feet tall was easy to see as it was raised by the team before its faithful group of Puna fans. After all they had endured, the Panthers proved that love and pride together are strong and can conquer all, and that they were truly “The Pride of Puna”.
Images from the Panthers’ Championship Season and other Big Island Pop Warner Teams may be viewed by visiting www.paradisephotoanddesign.com, and clicking the blue Facebook link. Several albums contain images from the season.
Paradise Photo and Design