Greg Taguchi remembers glancing at Kaiser High’s stadium clock and anxiously wondering, "’Why does it seem to be running so slow?’"
After six years of not-so-patiently waiting for a breakthrough football victory, what should have been the easy part — the last few minutes of Saturday evening’s game against Nanakuli — still proved taxing for long-suffering Kalani High faithful and their alumnus head coach.
Only as the crowd lustily took up a countdown of the final seconds of the 26-12 victory, marking the end of a 57-game losing streak, did relief come in the form of their first victory since August 2004.
"To look at Coach Taguchi, the coaches and the kids and see all their hard work pay off was rewarding," said principal Mitchell Otani, a 1972 graduate. "There were tears on people’s faces."
That it came in the final game of the 2010 season for the Falcons and on a homecoming attended by members of the Class of 1961, the school’s first graduates, made it all the more poignant.
Host Kaiser officials, moved by the spectacle, graciously let them enjoy it for a half-hour on the field as fans and family poured out of the stands.
"What a celebration that was!" observed assistant coach Ron Lee, who returned to Kalani, the site of his first coaching job more than 40 years ago, this summer after a decade at UH.
Perhaps no 1-8 finish was more celebrated or toasted. "In all my years, I hadn’t seen anything like it," Lee said. "It was like we’d won the national championship."
In their own way maybe they had, especially a senior class intent on making a statement on their way out the door. Too many times in the past, as the slide went deeper, the Falcons were forced to resign themselves to a "maybe next year" shrugging of the shoulder pads and passing the burden to succeeding classes.
But this senior class, which had taken one game (on the junior varsity level as sophomores) in its stay, was determined to leave a winning example to those who follow.
At a school not blessed with a large enrollment, big turnouts or prototype players, attitude and persistence have to help close the gap.
The way they went about it this year was admirable in its own right. Taguchi and the coaches didn’t preach winning as much as they did making a commitment to hard work and consistent improvement. "If we do that," Taguchi told them, "everything will take care of itself."
Shut out four times in 2009, the Falcons opened this season with a 54-0 loss to Kapaa. But the players, coaches will tell you, kept coming to practice, their chin straps up, and worked painstakingly toward a common goal.
And things began to change out along Kalanianaole Highway. Slowly, to be sure, but steadily as they started to grasp the finer points of the run-and-shoot offense Lee was refining. In their second game, the Falcons scored a touchdown. Then, 19 points, 22 …
Toward season’s end their games got more competitive. "It was like, OK, I think we’ve got it this week … then, something would happen," Otani said.
In a school year in which, so far, the Falcons have celebrated titles in bowling, air riflery and soft tennis among others, football has provided the exclamation point. "There has been a buzz (around campus)," Otani said.
More telling, "the players are already talking about getting ready for next year," Otani said.
As much as Lee tutored the players in the run-and-shoot, he figures they taught him something, too. For all the winning he has done — taking Kaiser High to a Prep Bowl, helping Saint Louis School to dozens of Prep Bowl and state titles, and assisting UH in WAC championships and bowl games — "it was something just to see these kids grow and finally get to experience what winning was like," Lee said. "Sometimes you forget how special it can be."
Not much chance of that happening at Kalani anytime soon.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.