By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
At 'Iolani School, where 200-pound football players are considered rare jewels, 315-pound Sealii Epenesa and 270-pound Kaena Moose have been the Raiders' two huge diamonds in the rough.
The senior defensive tackles anchor an otherwise typically small Raiders unit that will try to stop Kaua'i tomorrow in the First Hawaiian Bank/Hawai'i High School Athletic Association Division II championship game.
Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium.
"It's a very unusual situation for us to have two good-sized kids like that inside," said 'Iolani coach Wendell Look, in his 19th season at the Raiders' helm. "They've really solidified our interior defense. They complement each other well, they feed off each other."
Epenesa and Moose also have shared similar experiences off the field, each coming to 'Iolani as adolescents from non-traditional backgrounds.
Epenesa entered as an eighth-grader, transferring from Waipahu Intermediate.
"I never knew what I was getting myself into," Epenesa said. "It was a huge difference. At Waipahu, I didn't have to do as much homework and it was not that hard, but here I actually had to study a lot. It took me a while — more than a year, maybe two or three years — before I finally adjusted."
Just to get to school every day, Epenesa would have to leave his home near Village Park by 5:30 a.m. and catch TheBus, then he would ride it back home and arrive around 8 p.m.
"When I first came here, I hated it, I wanted to go back to Waipahu," Epenesa said. "I was like, 'Why did I do this? It's too hard, it's not worth it.' But now I know this is way better for me. It was hard, but it'll pay off in the end."
Moose, who entered as a freshman transfer from Hawaiian Mission Academy, also had to leave his house in Aliamanu at 5:30 a.m. to catch TheBus to 'Iolani.
"That first year, I had a big drop in my grades," Moose said. "It took me about a year, year and a half to get used to it."
Look credits the school's faculty with helping Epenesa and Moose eventually make the transition successful.
"For both of them, it was tough adjusting to the academic rigors, they had to learn what it is like to be an 'Iolani student," Look said. "But the teachers were great, they offered a lot of support and showed they were willing to help those guys make it."
On the field, both players also had to make adjustments despite not having the same size disadvantages as most of their teammates.
"Both of them are among the hardest workers on the team," Look said. "Especially for Lii, it wasn't easy going through our conditioning program. He had to watch his weight, work hard and make sacrifices. But both of them have taken their roles on the team seriously and have become good role models. They help the sophomores get up to speed, they've really bought into our 'One Team' atmosphere and embody who we are."
Upon first glance, Epenesa and Moose don't appear to fit the profile.
No other defensive starter weighs more than 200 pounds. The Raiders' other starting defensive lineman, Greg Lum, is 5-10, 185. Standout linebacker Cody Petro-Sakuma is 5-7, 175, and cornerback Dylan Goto is 5-3, 130.
"They're small, but they do what they gotta do and they get the job done," said Epenesa, who is 6-2. "They never use size as an excuse."
Moose, who is 6-1, said, "It's not like we have to do anything extra, just because we're bigger."
The presence of Epenesa and Moose does prevent opponents from focusing on one defender, and their ability to match up physically was a big factor in upsets of Division I powers Kapolei, Kamehameha and Punahou earlier this season.
"If they double-team Lii, then I get in (to the backfield), and if they double-team me, he gets in," Moose said.
Epenesa's "fan club" also has helped boost attendance and energy in the bleachers. Every game, about 15 or 20 family members come dressed in black T-shirts with "EPENESA" and his jersey number 99 printed in white on the back. They stand, cheer, wave red-and-black pom poms and belt out the school's fight song after every touchdown.
"They noticed that here, everybody just claps," Epenesa said. "But we're used to (O'ahu Interscholastic Association) cheering, so they like to get up and yell and sing."
There will be a lot more people doing that at his college games, no matter which of the scholarship offers he chooses from his final list: Colorado, Oregon State, Texas Tech, UCLA and Washington.
Moose does not have any formal scholarship offers, but is drawing interest from Nevada-Las Vegas, Wyoming and Illinois.
But the immediate concern is tomorrow's title game.
"It's exciting," Epenesa said. "Exciting and sad at the same time, because it's our last game."