LAHAINA – Under the blaze of the sun on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, it happens without anyone saying it.It is a tradition seemingly as old as Lahainaluna High School itself. When the Lunas step onto their hardscrabble mix of dirt and grass football field inside a gravel track, the seniors will step up to lead.
No one on the 2007 version of the Lunas football team knows that better than Lake Casco.
Casco is the only fourth-year varsity player for the Lunas this year and he has learned well from his older brothers, Kawika and Kainoa, who both enjoyed football and wrestling success at the west-side school that dates back to 1831.
“He is a four-year player, so he is a coach on the field for us,’’ Lahainaluna coach Bobby Watson said. “When he is not out there, we have a big void to fill. He is important to us on both sides of the ball.’’
That void is not usually a problem for the Lunas staff as Casco, when healthy, is on the field for more than 90 percent of the team’s plays. He was a first-team Maui Interscholastic League All-Star as both a defensive back and running back last season, he returns kicks, fills in as needed at kicker, and just about anything else the team is looking for.
Casco suffered a sprained ankle the week before the Lunas’ only loss of the season, a 23-20 overtime decision to Baldwin last month. He managed to play defense, but his presence was missed on the offensive side of the ball.
Despite playing in only four of seven MIL games as a slotback, he finished sixth in the league with 31 carries for 310 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
He returned a kick for a touchdown, kicked eight extra points and scored on a two-point conversion to finish third in the MIL scoring race with 58 points.
It is easy to see why it’s bad news for Kaimuki – the top-seeded Lunas’ opponent Saturday night in the semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank Division II state tournament at War Memorial Stadium – that he will be available to play both ways this week.
“He is looking better every day,’’ Watson said. “With Lake, exhaustion is not really a problem. He is in really good shape. He has got the green light to let us know when he needs to come out.’’
A tap of the helmet asking for rest is not likely to happen this week, or next if the Lunas advance to the state title game.
“We are pretty focused,’’ Casco said at practice last week. “We are getting back more into contact. A state title would be awesome. It would be the first state title as a team that we have ever had.’’
With a glance up to the “L’’ on the side of the mountain overlooking the field, Casco smiled. Right now, the “L’’ has five bars on it signifying MIL crowns.
“We would get to put a star on the L instead of just bars,’’ the 5-foot-8 1/2, 160-pounder said. “I don’t know how long I have known that. I just know. We want to win. We want to go out there, focus and play hard.’’
Casco has guidance from his 25-year-old brother Kawika, who is an assistant coach for the team after spending six years with the University of Utah football team, two of which were wiped out by knee injuries. Kawika was a player on the Utes’ unbeaten Fiesta Bowl championship team in 2005.
The topic of conversation at the Casco dinner table?
“Regular stuff,’’ Lake said. “Play hard, don’t get hurt, stuff like that.’’
The oldest brother left for college when Lake was 8 years old.
“It is kind of different having him as a coach, but it is still cool because we can still talk story and stuff,’’ Lake said. “He still teaches me.’’
Kawika, who is a teacher at Maui Preparatory Academy, said he has enjoyed his time with Lake this season.
“It has been a good experience,’’ Kawika said. “I have been mostly watching him from the (press) box. I have just been amazed at his quickness and just his breakaway speed that he has on the field. He is definitely the fastest of the three brothers. It has been a dream of mine ever since leaving for college and I came back last year for a job. It has just been an honor for me to watch my younger brother play football his senior year.’’
With a win this week, the breakthrough season would end in the title game Nov. 30 at Aloha Stadium.
“Everyone is excited about that,’’ Lake said. “We want to be on TV or something.’’
Lake Casco is thinking of following in his brothers’ footsteps into college sports, specifically, he hopes, in Ivy League football. Said the state champion wrestler from a year ago: “It is football for sure, wrestling is too hard.’’
Pennsylvania and a couple other Ivy schools are on his list. He has a 3.9 cumulative grade-point average and it was 4.2 last quarter. He currently has Advanced Placement biology, government and calculus.
“I will go wherever they need me – offense or defense,’’ Lake said. “I just love playing football.’’