Year 3 of the Abu Ma‘afala era is underway at Kamehameha with a lean approach.
The Warriors carry roughly 65 players now, down significantly from Ma‘afala’s first year — after the departure of Doug Cosbie. Saint Louis has captured the ILH football crown in the past two seasons, leaving powerhouses Punahou and Kamehameha grasping. While 65 might seem like an enormous number for many of the state’s smaller programs, it is quite unusual for a program with the tradition of Kamehameha, which has gone 7-11 in Ma‘afala’s first two seasons.
However, the smaller group might turn out to be the best. There’s no shortage of talent, and the coaching staff has prepared players to play on both sides of the ball.
There has also been a change in play-calling. Ma‘afala has ceded that task to a veteran coach new to his staff, and he is beyond optimistic. The former Kamehameha and Hawaii defensive lineman — and West Liberty University assistant coach — is prepping the Warriors for a regular-season opener against Kapolei on Friday night in the inaugural season of the Open Division.
Ma‘afala chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday.
HPW: Going back to the offseason, at the GPA Combine, you were very excited about your Warriors. I remember you praising guys like Hoku Arias. He is a pure linebacker who makes the right plays, but I think he’s a classic talent who gets less attention from recruiters because he’s not 6-foot-3.
Abu Ma‘afala: He’s a definite D-I talent, just not the typical D-I size. Guys like Sam Mills were thicker guys. I would compare Hoku to Pisa Tinoisamoa, a jack-of-all-trades linebacker who can play the run, great in space, instincts out of this world, and the effort sideline to sideline. I got to play with him at UH and he had 19 tackles against Alabama. Hoku has that kind of potential. Off the field, Pisa was a vocal, funny guy and always encouraging his teammates. Hoku doesn’t have a certain group he hangs with. He is super unassuming, hangs with all kinds of people.
HPW: We haven’t had a chance to discuss the new Open Division format. What do you think about the OIA and ILH playing football together in the regular season
Ma‘afala: I’m glad that we’re at this point. We’re starting to catch up with the rest of the nation. We were behind the times, and now it helps from a recruiting standpoint, real comparison with guys at every level, not just for the Open Division, but the guys at the D-I and D-II. It’s less projection and more real. From a playing standpoint, it’s almost like a college or NFL schedule. Every week, you’ve got to bring your best. ILH, we played two really good teams, a heavyweight slugfest, have time to lick your wounds. Now it’s every week. As a head coach, you’ve got to balance the practices. Are we going too hard or too soft? Game planning, after the second round, you already know what Saint Louis or Punahou would do. So it’s exciting.
HPW: What’s the feedback been like from your players about the new format?
Ma‘afala: At Kamehameha, now our kids get a chance to play against childhood friends. We’re starting to get into the essence. Our numbers have decreased over the last two, three years. Instead of 80, 90 guys, we’re at about 65 kids, so we have guys who have to learn to play both ways. We’ve had to get creative and wrap our minds around that. Especially the linemen, they’ll have to play both ways, but the kids have stepped up. It also helps from a recruiting perspective. That’s the conversation I’m having with a lot of (college) coaches.
HPW: Who do you lean on for leadership among your players?
Ma‘afala: We’ve had just some great senior leadership. Hoku and Lokahi Pauole have done a great job of rallying the troops together, bringing the entire team together, creating a team atmosphere. Tiger (Peterson), obviously, committing (to Hawaii) for him was big as a leader and player. It focused him that, No. 1, he’s going to be an early graduate. He’s going to enroll at UH in January. He’s telling guys to be quiet, to get focused. He wants to learn. Linebacker Akalea Kapono has an offer from Navy. He and Hoku are the vocal guys on defense.
Kupono Blake (DL, 6-3, 255) is playing both ways for us. He has an Air Force offer. He’s sacrificed part of his senior year because we’re thin on offensive line. He and the seniors have taken ownership of the team. Year 3, hopefully the fruits of our labor will show up.
HPW: You got a lot of guys bearing down, knowing the roster is smaller. Who’s been working hard and not getting any limelight?
Ma‘afala: Reino Bush, Alec Serrao, they’re running backs. And Cody (Bollig). These guys have worked hard.
HPW: Awhile back, you were concerned about your new offensive coordinator’s name getting out. It’s the end of preseason now.
Ma‘afala: I was concerned because Fred didn’t want to distract anyone from the kids.
HPW: Fred who?
Ma‘afala: Fred Salanoa is our OC.
HPW: Wow. That’s a great addition.
(Note: Salanoa led Radford to a Division II state title before stepping away. He later assisted at Punahou and his alma mater, Eastern Washington — where he set passing records — before returning to Hawaii.)
Ma‘afala: He never wants it to be about him. I knew what he can do offensively, but he’s mentored me. He was a head coach for 15 years. He’s helped me to grow so much in the six months he’s been on staff. He’s helped us to all grow.