KAILUA-KONA — Under the radar is a phrase that would describe Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino, a school that is literally in the shadow of Konawaena.
It also perfectly describes the Hawaiian language immersion school’s girls paddling team, which persevered through a slow start and several personnel changes on the way to a third place finish at the BIIF Championships and a lane in the HHSAA state regatta at Oahu’s Keehi Lagoon on Saturday.
“No one really knows about us,” said Ehunui head coach Eddie “Piki” Hayward. “For a school with very small numbers, making states wasn’t really on the radar early in the season. But we were able to play with our rotation and find what works.”
The girls crew had a rough start to the season. In the first two races Ehunui finished fifth and seventh, and nearly 20 seconds back of the leader.
Then Christmas break came and everything changed.
“We challenged our paddlers, took them out to sea, paddling to the horizon,” Hayward said. “Practicing near the shoreline, the kids have a habit of playing around a little bit. But when you go out to sea, reality is a bit darker, a bit deeper, and there is also the wind element.
“When it all began to sink in, that is when we started hitting them with lessons,” Hayward added. “We added a life challenge aspect to the training and we got great feedback.”
In the first meet back from the holiday break, Ehunui took fourth place and cut their deficit off the leader down to 12 seconds. The school was edged out by Kamehameha for third place by only 1.5 seconds
However, a bit of a setback came in the final meet of the regular season. Despite finishing fourth again, the team lost several seconds off their time.
“After the first meet back, our mindset shifted to ‘now we can make it,’ but then we went backwards,” Hayward said. “That forced us to go into the BIIF Championships with an ‘all in’ mentality and we came in third. It was a huge accomplishment for our school to get that last state berth.
The Ehunui girls crew of Kau‘i Navas-Colburn (senior), Kahina Benbouzid-Hewitt (sophomore), Kamai Malakaua (sophomore), Eleina Hayward (sophomore), Kiha Ezzo-Gardner (freshman) and Kamanu Kaho‘onei (freshman) finished their league championship race in a time of 4 minutes and 33.62 seconds. The time was only six seconds off the first place time by Kealakehe, which pulled off an upset of Keaau.
“Six seconds in paddling terms is about one canoe length,” Hayward said. “These girls overcame a lot of obstacles and picked up valuable life lessons along the way.”
Ehunui took third despite having very little experience. Freshmen Ezzo-Gardner and Kaho‘onei were not part of the girls varsity crew to start the season. The team’s lone senior, Navas-Colburn, has only paddled for two months.
“Kau‘i does not have a lot of paddling experience but she has a strong soccer background,” Hayward said. “She has a very focused mentality and was able to transfer that over. She gained better technique and rhythm, and was able to earn her seat.”
As the team crossed the finish line in third, their coach could see how much it meant to each member of the crew.
“I never saw them so happy in my life,” Hayward said. “They trusted the process and believed in each other.”
Along with the six members who competed in the BIIF Championships, three other girls will join the crew heading to states. They are Mele Spencer (sophomore), Makamae Medina-Olivera (sophomore) and Kala‘ula Kihoi-Low (sophomore). Hayward is assisted by coach Kaho‘okahi Kanuha.