The Kaiser varsity football team is playing against the odds and so far it’s looking like a ball of fun.
The lesson is in front of them. Not football. Life.
The Cougars had 17 players suited up for a three-team scrimmage against McKinley and Aiea at the Tigers’ home field Saturday. Another handful were on the bench in street clothes, not ready for action for various reasons.
Playing Division I football in the Oahu Interscholastic Association with such a small roster is not the best possible situation. But that is what is in front of them and instead of sulking, they’re playing with vigor, having fun and making the best of a bad predicament.
They are well aware that some games may have to be forfeited, but they’re ready to press on.
“With the low numbers I feel like we’re closer,” junior linebacker and running back Reece Kaonohi said after the scrimmage. “We bonded over the spring and summer and we’re closer than ever right now. And we’re going to play together and we’re going to play as one team and we’re going to kick butt. We were hungry to play this one scrimmage. We played our hearts out. We all love the game and we all have fun doing it together and with the coaches. We’re hoping for the best for Kaiser. We’re definitely going to play and we’re going to come out banging.”
Officially the Cougars will be playing a “modified” season, according to principal Justin Mew. At this point, what “modified” means is anybody’s guess. It appears whether Kaiser plays its scheduled games this year will be a week-to-week decision.
“We were just excited to get on the field, you know,” junior quarterback Casey Nguyen said. “We couldn’t wait to play some teams and get some reps in. As for the season, it feels like if we work together and work as a family we can pull it together. Everybody is on board.”
Nguyen gave props to his O-line.
“They were really working well, despite Aiea blitzing a lot of guys and they did a good job of blocking McKinley,” he said. “And our defense was playing really good, lights out.”
Coach Arnold Martinez was happy with his troops.
“Overall, I thought both of our teams (the JV team played before the varsity) worked really well,” he said. “They showed they’ve got a lot of heart and they’ve learned a lot of football. Even with the low numbers, you get a sense they understand the scheme and understand the theory beind the plays. On the defensive line, Andrew Choi made a lot of plays. Noah Matsumoto, a receiver, did a heckuva job catching some balls. The lines did pretty decent, considering there wasn’t a lot of rest.”
Martinez arrived at Kaiser not long before last season started as a replacement for outgoing Cameron Higgins, who spent two years in the post as a replacement for 2013 Division II state championship winning coach Rich Miano.
The Cougars have been up in Division I since Miano left amid controversy, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Miano was a huge draw to prospective players, with credentials as a former NFL player and former University of Hawaii assistant. In this day and age, where many top players pretty much end up at the school of their choice, the numbers problem at Kaiser started with Miano’s departure and continued to get worse.
There is a faction of Kaiser parents who have pinned blame on Martinez for the low turnout. Lance Kaonohi, the dad of Reece, is not one of them.
“I can tell he’s trying to foster the players’ development with new requirements, fundraising and standards of accountability,” Lance Kaonohi said. “He’s brought in new uniforms for games and practices and he’s gotten the locker rooms painted. That stuff makes a difference. And he’s holding the kids accountable. In order to succeed, you’ve gotta be able to follow rules and standards. And he’s got a good group of staff members who coach up the kids. He’s trying to create young men. That’s what’s valuable. A lot of people may be missing that. Let him coach and let the program succeed.”
Kaonohi also likes the fact that, unlike in previous years, the JV and varsity players are learning the same schemes and that it works to breed program-wide familiarity.
During summer workouts about a month ago, Martinez mentioned that he felt his team should be in Division II this season and not in Division I where they play against or could potentially play against some of the top programs in the state like Mililani, Waianae, Farrington and Kahuku.
In the same breath at that time, Martinez also said he believes that Kaiser will be Division I caliber in the future. Ironically, before Kaiser won that state D-II title, Miano was lobbying for an immediate move up to D-I. That effort did not pan out, leading to the Cougars becoming the biggest fish in the smaller pond.
Now it’s the opposite, a small fish in a bigger pond. They can scatter. Or learn a life lesson and swim as one school.