He started out with a struggling football program and barely any experience as a coach.
Eleven years later, including nine years as head coach at Waipahu, Sean Saturnio is leaving behind a legacy of players with great sportsmanship on and off the field.
Saturnio, 43, announced his retirement yesterday, surprising players, administrators and Marauders fans. Waipahu completed its season recently, losing in the semifinals of the Oahu Interscholastic Association White Conference playoffs. The team finished 6-3 overall.
Over the years, Saturnio and his staff have made several summer pilgrimages to mainland universities, including the Naval Academy, to learn the nuts and bolts of the spread option and various schemes. However, his touch did more than heal a broken football program at Waipahu.
His teams had one definitive habit that separated it from most other teams: The Marauders often helped opposing players off the ground after tackles. Players often had pregame prayer with other teams, a ritual led and conducted by athletes only.
"It’s been humbling and honoring to be allowed to be in the life of a young person," Saturnio said. "There is a legion of pono men making it out, keeping the battle going," he said.
Saturnio, a teacher at Waipahu and a former University of Hawaii player, says "there’s nothing else on the horizon." The prospect of walking away from the program he and his staff rebuilt gnawed at him months ago.
"Last February, the Lord was knocking on my heart. I denied it for the longest time. I spent a lot of time in prayer," he said.
However, during preseason team camp, he knew it was over.
"I woke up one morning and I knew. I cried. I told only my assistant coaches. I didn’t want this season to be about me," Saturnio said.
His decision was a hard one to spring on athletic director Stacie Nii and his players.
"It was tough. I could be at Waipahu 30 more years. I feel blessed that God’s equipped me to coach," he said.
Saturnio has recommended former player and current assistant coach Bryson Carvalho to take the reins. Carvalho, who was a senior on Saturnio’s first team as a varsity coach, is an educational assistant at Waipahu who is taking classes to become a teacher.
"I’ve told him, if they hire you to be head coach, just put your fingerprints on the program. God created you specifically to be yourself," Saturnio said. "The offense, the defense, the special teams could change, but Waipahu football will always be about raising great men."
Saturnio’s children are both in high school and he has no plans other than being a husband, father and teacher. It seems to be an unusual time to walk away.
"One lesson I can leave is an act of faith. I asked, ‘Why? We’ve gone from rock-bottom to a place that’s respected in the football community and beyond.’ We’ve got great young kids, sophomores and juniors coming up. But I heard the Lord say, ‘Trust me, son,’ " Saturnio said.
"Wherever the Lord says to go, whenever he says to go, I’ll go. Maybe somebody will see what I’m doing in obedience and see, ‘I need to leave things behind and obey the Lord.’ "
The football program had low numbers when he began, the result of weeding out student-athletes who refused to follow his disciplined approach to academics and athletics. Saturnio praised his cohorts in building stability. The team has doubled to more than 60 varsity players since.
"I was blessed with support from administrators, teachers, parents and the community," he said. "It was always about the kids."
The Hilo native has also been influential among his peers. He counts Moanalua coach Arnold Martinez and Leilehua coach Nolan Tokuda among his many "brothers."
"It’s bittersweet. You hate to see a close friend and a brother in Christ leave. You don’t want to see the good ones not coach, but I support him. Faith-wise, this is what he needs to do," Martinez said. "He and his family devoted lots to the community. We should all be happy for the time he coached. He impacted lives beyond measure."
Saturnio said he expects one thing: to continue being a leader in some capacity again. He just doesn’t know anything more than that.
"To reach out and show there’s a different way, that’s been a blessing," he said. "When you get someone playing with love in his heart, you get synergy as a team. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."