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Mules Nation's biggest constant: The steady guidance of Tokuda

By Ferd Lewis

LAST UPDATED: 1:36 a.m. HST, Nov 9, 2010

When Leilehua High burst through the cobwebs of a 20-year title game absence to make the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championship game in 2004, quarterback Bryant Moniz was justifiably celebrated as one of the heroes.

When the Mules returned in the magical championship season of 2007, Andrew Manley, the sophomore sensation quarterback, was rightly heralded.

And, when the Mules made it three state tournament appearances in a row in '08 and '09, Manley, was, again, deservedly saluted.

But as third-ranked Leilehua (7-3) prepares for its fourth consecutive HHSAA appearance -- and fifth in seven years -- with still another quarterback Friday, tribute should be paid to the architect of the Mules' remarkable renaissance, head coach Nolan Tokuda.

That the Mules are the only Division I school on a four-year run of consecutive appearances in the state tournament this year despite what was supposed to be a rebuilding season is hardly a coincidence. It is definitely not a fluke.

To be sure, the Mules have benefited from a line of capable quarterbacks, including Kenan Sadanaga now, and a loyal, cohesive coaching staff. But the most significant constant since Tokuda came aboard the varsity in 2004 is the head coach's steady hand and painstaking, detail-oriented approach.

His teams aren't always the most talented, biggest or fastest, but a 59-26 record is testament they are hard-nosed while among the most passionate and best prepared.

So much so that the Wahiawa community has embraced the one-time Aiea quarterback and baseball player for the culture he has instilled and the pride that has grown among the "Mule Nation" as it has come to be known. Not that you will hear him claim an ounce of credit for it, deferring instead to his staff and players.

At a school whose enrollment is a confluence of local and military dependents, Tokuda has promoted an ohana environment that breaks down other barriers for the "Leilehua way."

"He's been fantastic," said Dr. Sadao Honda, Leilehua class of '41 and perhaps the Mules' most enduring fan.

"He capitalizes on the talents of the kids and instills confidence," notes Paul Kobayashi, a former Leilehua principal (1966-79) who regularly follows the Mules. "The kids really play for him."

None of which surprises UH-Hilo baseball coach Joey Estrella, who has watched from afar the success of his former infielder.

"He's very team-oriented and the No. 1 thing is that the kids know he cares about them," Estrella said. "A lot of coaches can do the X's and O's, but the players believe in him because they know he cares about their success -- and not just as (athletes)."

Until Tokuda's arrival in 2004, Hugh Yoshida had been the last coach to take the Mules to a championship game, the 1984 Prep Bowl. Yoshida remembers a scrappy, can-do quarterback for Na Alii who played the game with a hard-nosed passion, "but played it the right way."

As he watches the next century Mules from Hugh Yoshida Field, the old coach sees those virtues played out in green and gold. And, he offers perhaps the ultimate compliment. Said Yoshida: "He's taken them to the next level."

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@staradvertiser.com.


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