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MPAL provides keiki an outlet during pandemic with flag football season | News, Sports, Jobs

Chaos running back Nephi Vakalahi breaks loose for a long touchdown run against the Blue Bloods during the Maui Police Activities League’s flag football games Thursday afternoon at Central Maui Regional Sports Complex in Kahului. The MPAL’s league for fourth and fifth graders runs through April.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — Respect, responsibility, integrity, leadership and sportsmanship are among the core values taught during Maui Police Activities League flag football, one of the many sports that Maui Police Department officers are trying to make available for local youth amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

MPAL, a nonprofit organization launched in 2015, gives keiki a support system and positive atmosphere to use their “bottled up energy,” organizers say.

“We’re hoping that this provides them with a way to get out,” MPAL flag football organizer and MPD Officer Nephi Laga said last month before practice at Central Maui Regional Sports Complex. “We’re not only teaching them how to play football, we’re teaching them core values.”

Due to the pandemic and lack of venue options, MPAL postponed its usual basketball league but continued with its first flag football season in January for fourth- and fifth-grade coed teams — the program is capped at five teams of 10 players, and several kids who signed up for the cheer squad.

Teams are coached by MPD officers from all different districts and divisions.

Members of the Blue Thunders cheer team practice a new cheer during Thursday’s game between Cobra Kai and the Blue Unicorns.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The first day of competition was Thursday at CMRSC, and game will be held every Thursday through April. Practices are twice a week from 4 to 6 p.m. at CMRSC.

Laga said it was important for MPAL to continue the league through the pandemic because youth “don’t have that socialization, the contact with other kids and interacting, and I think that’s hard for them.”

“What we’ve seen with these kids now — elementary, middle and high school — there’s a lot of depression right now,” said Lt. Terence Gomez, one of the commissioners and volunteer coaches for MPAL. “We don’t have a lot of criminal cases going through our section but you know, a lot of parents are calling saying that their kids don’t even want to come out of their rooms.”

Participation for MPAL is always free, which opens more opportunities to families and children who may not have the financial means to play in a similar organized club league, Gomez said.

Each week, officers from the Juvenile Crime Prevention Division focus on one core value to teach the kids.

Ano‘i Salagsang of the Blue Bloods releases a pass on a double reverse that went for long yardage to quarterback Zyler Yoshida. The Blue Bloods defeated Chaos 28-12.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“So that will be taught to them during practice and then just giving them some place they can get out and exercise and socialize because they’re at home most of the time,” Laga said. “And especially with our program, it involves the police officers and having an officer to coach them is really good.”

COVID-19 safety and health protocols are in place for all players, coaches and parents. Families are required to complete a survey via an app prior to the player stepping on the field for a game or practice, Laga said.

There is also a sanitizing station set up on the sidelines and teams are separated from one another. Those not actively playing are required to wear face masks.

MPAL offers cultural, educational and athletic programs to youth who need some leadership, compassion and understanding, as well as alternatives to the “all too available paths of idleness and delinquency that can ultimately lead to crime,” Gomez said.

Part of the MPAL curriculum includes education sessions and presentations, and so it’s “very hard to keep their attention for a certain amount of time,” he added. “But what you notice with the kids playing the sports — and we get kids from all walks of life — their attention is 100 percent better, it’s amazing to see. I think they’re very appreciative and a lot of the parents will come up to us at the practice and say ‘thanks for doing this.’ “

Kylan Nakamura carries the ball for the Blue Unicorns against Cobra Kai.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Before a practice last month at CMRSC, players from the Blue Unicorns were full of energy and clearly excited to be outside.

“You get to play a sport,” Kaikea Platt said with a smile. “I like playing with my friends.”

Kameo Rozet, who has also played baseball, wrestling and soccer, said that he likes participating on the MPAL flag football team right now “because we have the opportunity to play a sport during this time.”

Xander Pagan, who plays for the Huskies team, has been a part of the MPAL program for six years. He said he likes playing flag football because it’s fun and “I’m athletic.”

“It’s cool we get to play during COVID-19,” Pagan said.

Blue Bloods quarterback Zyler Yoshida hauls in a pass.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Huskies assistant coach Kawika Ornellas, who has been volunteering with MPAL for a few seasons, said the program is also a good opportunity for the coaches themselves to stay active and involved throughout the pandemic.

“I’ve been playing sports my entire life and so it’s just a fun way to interact with the kids and just a way to volunteer in the community,” Ornellas said.

“I think this program is important, especially now with this whole COVID thing, for the kids to participate in sports after they’ve been in school all day or at home all day,” said Sgt. Grant Nakamura, a volunteer coach. “It’s always good to get out. (Sports) helps with all life skills; I wrestled all throughout my life and it got me through and taught me so many different skills.”

Nakamura added that it’s also beneficial for the police department to give back to the community and mentor the youth.

Looking ahead, Gomez and Laga said that MPAL will be starting a wrestling and jiu-jitsu program, and are in the process of trying to create a seven-on-seven, limited contact football league for intermediate and high school kids.

Registration is currently open for the MPAL/NFL Flag Middle School coed season, which begins March 8. Registration runs through Feb. 15, though spots are limited. To register, visit mauipal.org.

Gomez and Laga also want to organize a combine for the older players to give them an opportunity to clock official times and complete specific drills needed for college considering that the Maui Interscholastic League football season was canceled.

“If you look across the U.S., 38 out of the 50 states are doing contact sports,” Gomez said. “Hawaii unfortunately is one of those 12, so we’re trying to look at what they’re doing and how they are operating in a safe manner.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com


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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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