Leagues may vote on return of state tournaments Friday

Leilehua High School punter Jayzon Ramos runs for a first down during first-half action Friday against Baldwin at War Memorial Stadium on Maui. Ramos used a stiff arm to get past Baldwin would-be tackler Ivan Elf. The Mules won the first-round game of the Division I Chevron state football championships, 34-7.

Coaches and players are cautiously optimistic about the HHSAA’s recommendation that state championships be played this fall sports season.

The state’s four leagues controlled by the DOE will vote by Friday to follow the plan, or reject the possibility of state tournaments. There has not been a state tournament since the winter season of 2020, 18 months ago.

Kahuku football coach Sterling Carvalho is confident that the recommendation will be accepted.

“This does not surprise me. If the DOE and the state are requiring student-athletes to get vaccinated or file for an exemption, then there is a plan moving forward. The plan is to have a full season including state championships,” he said.

The DOE mandated last week that all student-athletes must be vaccinated or be willing to be tested twice per week once the currently postponed fall season resumes on Sept. 24. That has set the temperature higher than usual as the COVID-19 pandemic, spiked by the Delta variant, continues to wreak havoc on Hawaii’s high school sports.

Football players who lost the 2020-21 season are hoping to avoid losing a second year in a row while the rest of the nation plays on. Some say they would be content even with a shortened season. If vaccinated players are cleared to play two weeks after taking the second shot on Sept. 24, that sets up are turn to football by Oct. 8. The normal sports calendar brings football season to an end by Thanksgiving week.

By that time frame, teams would be lucky to have five or six games total.

“It would be something. One game, two games, five games, it’s something,” Leilehua wide receiver Keawe Andres said. “I’m really surprised if we have a chance to play a state tournament. I just hope for a season and to get myself out there. I’m extremely happy that I get my pads on and I get to play for Leilehua just one more time for my senior year.”

Mililani wide receiver Gavin Hunter is optimistic.

“That’s good news. This gives us another reason to keep working and stay focused,” he said. “I got a good feeling about this. The ADs and the leagues want the kids to play, but maybe the governor is changing everything up. I think, yeah, we’ll be playing state tournaments.”

Roosevelt linebacker Kaeo Akana had 16 offers before committing to Boise State in June.

“I’m not surprised that the HHSAA is planning to have a state championship. I believe they want what’s best. The only question is, will it really happen? For me, I just want to play, compete, have fun with my boys. I’m lucky. My situation is a little different,” Akana said.

Though this is the first time since the pandemic began that state tournaments are back on the table, administrators statewide — aside from the private-school Interscholastic League of Honolulu — have been thoroughly risk-adverse about prep sports and interisland travel for state championships.

Add the possibility of an extended fall season, and some coaches are surprised. Carvalho sees progress being made in the renovation of Carleton Weimer Field.

“To be honest, Kahuku would welcome an extended season. Hopefully, by then, our field will be done and we could play at least a game there. There’s no place like home,” he said.

Sports calendars at the executive level of the HHSAA and its member leagues are basically written into stone during the early summer. Resetting end dates is not just rare. It has never been done in recent memory.

“I’ve said it before that I was always optimistic our season would happen successfully. I am surprised and excited that there is a possibility that fall sports will be extended. I know I speak for all coaches that we are all for having a full season. It’s because we love what we do,” Konawaena football coach Brad Uemoto said. “Athletic directors should have the same passion for having a season. We should think of every avenue to make it happen safely rather than find all the reasons not to. I see no justification for any other outcome.”

Lahainaluna football co-head coach Dean Rickard also supports the potential of a full, extended season.

“When we first heard about the DOE’s vaccination requirement and postponement of the (fall) season, of course our initial thoughts were, oh no, here we go again. But there was some optimism as there was no talk of cancelling the season. Now that the HHSAA has approved league and state championships for all seasons, it’s definitely a positive step in the right direction, and is much welcomed and long overdue,” Rickard said.

“At this point, we believe every player and coach is eager to get back on the field and play out the season, even if it means extending into December or January. Now it’s up to the athletic directors to make it happen and bring back some sense of normalcy for our student-athletes,” he added.

Rickard, who works for the Maui Police Department, is also pragmatic. If leagues were to vote against state tournaments, they should expect a lot of backlash, in his view.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise. Nothing is a surprise anymore, but it would almost certainly cause a lot of controversy, and anger in players who decided to get vaccinated in order to play, who otherwise would not take the vaccine at all,” he said. “Now these players made the choice to take it in order to play, but only have the season take away again. The DOE had a year-and-a-half to figure this out. It’s time to put it in motion.”

Longtime Kaimuki football coach David Tautofi is hopeful and skeptical.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they approved the (state) tournament. It’s their job to find the most for the experience for our teams and athletes, but it will always come down to the OIA. We’ll see where the DOE has us by then,” Tautofi said. “It’s not surprising either that there’s talks of extending the calendar, but that remains to be seen if the OIA is willing to make that change given all that our kids had to go through in all the changes caused by the pandemic.”

Tautofi has been staunch about the need for decision-makers to accept athletics as a vital part of curriculum. The lack of support, he noted, has been apparent since the start of the pandemic. He doesn’t expect any significant change come Friday,

“I do believe athletic directors and principals will vote against (the return of state tournaments). I hope and pray I’m wrong, but there’s enough out there to build any case to do so, especially with the virus and the chaos that it has caused. The OIA and the DOE recognize sports to be a privilege. It’s unfortunate that’s how it’s looked at. It’s a privilege to be on a team. It’s a right to participate in sports as it is a right to engage in the academic curriculum,” he said. “Athletics is co-curricular. It’s not extra.”

Meanwhile, the ILH football coordinator Wendell Look has not indicated a start date for its football schedule.


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