Road construction blares outside of West High as the Panthers football team finishes its last week of two-a-day practices.
As the heavy machinery mimics the sound of a roaring crowd, the players and coaches put the final touches on a week's worth of practices.
The linemen are a collection of thick boys in hodge-podge shorts but matching black jerseys. They drill maniacally. Under the glaring eye and sharp voice of assistant coach Tavita Sagapolu, West's linemen are learning more than positioning, hand checking and working in unison. They are learning explosiveness.
"I want you to look at your opponents and dare them to come out," Sagapolu barks. "Have the will to win. We play through the fifth quarter. If the lights go off, know that we'll go play them in the parking lot."
Closely scripted choreography has the linemen set and move as one. Sagapolu joins them between whistles to demonstrate the exact form he expects. Sagapolu is avuncular in both tone and dress. Wearing West embroidered athletic shorts, T-shirt and a small fanny pack, he is quick to yell at an offending player for a misstep on the line then pat him on the backside when the mistake is corrected.
The memories of last season's 2-8 record are forgotten as the team lines up to finish practice with wind sprints. Sagapolu takes position in the middle of the field and urges his boys to take one small step toward a state championship with every whistle blown. The Panthers explode off the line in thirds with the linemen chugging the length of the field. Center Newton Maua'i channels the last six months of time in the gym into each sprint. The senior fights through burning lungs and resists the temptation to hang on his oversized legs waiting for the next whistle.
Maua'i's excitement for the upcoming season is hardened through four years of work at West. He has committed himself to excel during his last year in football before heading off to college to study business. His leadership is apparent as the thick boy in the No. 64 jersey heaves younger players' tired arms on his shoulders and stands tall for them.
"Senior leadership makes the difference," Maua'i said. "It's not enough to want to make that big play or make the big hit. You have to lead and make sure the other guys know you have them."
Starting running back Isi Pupu'a glares throughout the drills. By 12:30 p.m., the sun has cooked off the sprinkler water from the turf leaving Pupu'a's squat, thick and strong 5-foot-10 body covered in sweat. The senior is finding his third wind to finish the practice stronger than he did at the beginning of the week. West has been working on mastering the triple option playbook throughout camp.
Pupu'a runs with purpose low to the ground with his broad shoulders acting more akin to a battering ram. Soft-spoken off the field, Pupu'a believes that the work the Panthers have done as created a team in the offseason will separate it from the competition.
"We're a family," Pupu'a said. "Everyone else don't play like us. They might play as a team, but we play as a family."
Coach Keith Lopati has been preparing his team since January with strength and speed training. No one has benefited in the gym more than Maua'i. He's built an impressive frame while adding delicate footwork. Pupu'a said that nobody hits as hard as Maua'i and opposing teams should be nervous when he fills in as defensive tackle. Maua'i defers the attention, feeling more comfortable about emphasizing the work the team has done.
"Never give up, ever," Maua'I said. "Keep going even if things get tough. We put our teammates before us and play through the pain."
Leading West is A.J. Lolohea. The quarterback transferred from Highland because he felt more comfortable going to school in the predominately Polynesian community. He speaks with pride about the work the team has done to prepare for the season and is excited to take the ball from the shotgun in the triple option.
"We're going to be a powerhouse program that isn't afraid to take the hits or give them," Lolohea said. "It comes from us getting closer and working together."
Ammon Se'ei should be Lolohea's No. 1 target. The 6-1 wide receiver from Hawaii is jocular, vocal and strong. Even though Se'ei just had been through Hell Week at West, he sprints effortlessly in the closing moments of practice. Se'ei is addicted to the energy created on the field.
"This is a rough group of guys but real friendly when you get to know them," Se'ei said. "When we get hyped, we know we can make plays, and that comes from keeping the tempo high and under control. We can win any game."
The final wind sprint is done as a team, and the Panthers trudge across the goal line. They gather under the center of the field with black helmets held high as Sagapolu offers much-needed praise for the work they have done. He comments how far they've come in just a week and challenges them to think of what they can accomplish in the coming season.
I.N.M. is the team's motto, an acronym for It's Not about Me. Lopati joins the players and reminds them about the work they've done and what it means for their first game against Weber on Aug. 23. Pupu'a doesn't need to be reminded. The season started in the weight room in January for him. Walking toward the sideline after West breaks, he summarizes the work that he has done and what the Panthers plan for other teams during the season.
"I can tell this is going to be the best season ever," Pupu'a said. "Smash on."
ASSIGNMENT • Region 2
LAST YEAR • 2-8 overall, 1-4 Region 2
KEY RETURNER • Defensive tackle and center Newton Maua'i is a hard-hitting threat on the field who relishes big-play opportunities. Expect Maua'i to play both ways.
PLAYER TO WATCH • Ammon Se'ei still is feeling out his way with his new teammates, but the Hawaii transfer is earning their trust with explosive speed and a hard-hitting style.
BIGGEST HOLE • With the addition of Se'ei, the wide receiving corps is strengthened but not as diverse as West would like.
NEED TO KNOW • With the triple-option playbook, West is depending on A.J. Lolohea to make big plays as well as smart plays. The big senior knows the responsibility and is looking forward to executing on the field.