Safety first, adaptation second.
Coaches in various sports around the state continue to support the standards for safety. They also note the success of properly-administrated fall sports in states like Utah and Idaho, where football and girls volleyball resumed on schedule.
Kahuku football coach Sterling Carvalho spent a week-and-a-half watching high school football in Utah recently. There are a few athletes from the islands, including Kahuku players, who transferred to the Beehive State to play football this fall. One of them was his nephew, Kainoa Carvalho.
“I would want not just football, but all sports and extra-curricular activities to begin in 2021. Other states have, and are moving forward with, participating in extra-curricular activities and sports. They have protocols in place and are making it work,” Carvalho said. “We can follow and adopt those protocols, and implement what we have to allow our keiki to return to play. Safety should be at the forefront for everyone. However, if we are cautious, follow the protocols and be responsible, we can make it work for everyone, just like other states have done.”
There were hitches in Utah, which had a few early-season games cancelled due to COVID-19, but for the most part, social distancing and other protocol measures were successfully adopted and executed.
“If you just go off the state guidelines, we have to be in Tier 4 to have competitions,” Damien athletic director and football coach Eddie Klaneski said. “I am hopeful that high school sports will get an exemption so we can return to play. Football, if allowed, will be played in spring.”
It wasn’t easy, but the longtime coach and his staff have adapted.
“I believe that football should be allowed to be played if the schools agree that it is safe for their student-athletes to participate, whether they are 100-percent face-to-face (on campus) or not,” Klaneski added. “The safety of our student-athletes and their families is our No. 1 concern during this time. I’m all for getting the kids back on the fields and in the gyms as long as the plans to keep them all safe are in place.”
Locally, there is hope. The reality, though, is difficult to digest for student-athletes and coaches. Winter sports are scheduled to begin in January, and wrestling is considered a higher-risk activity. Fall sports, including football are slated tentatively for early 2021, but again, the higher-risk tag is unavoidable.
The Hawaii High School Athletic Association is working with the Department of Education and Department of Health to have functional, effective protocol if sports resumes in early 2021. Winter sports have already lost preseason games and tournaments, notably the ‘Iolani Classic.
For now, many private schools on Oahu, including those that play in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, already have students on campus, or are in the process of bringing them back. ‘Iolani and Punahou offer face-to-face and virtual learning options. Saint Louis has gradually brought back students up to ninth grade.
Damien has not opened its doors yet. Hawaii Baptist Academy has resumed on campus with sports in strict protocol.
Public schools remain in virtual mode with some exceptions. At Mililani, students who don’t have access to internet can participate in study hall on campus. Mililani football coach Rod York teaches English and U.S. History.
“They want to do better in school and need a place on campus to do their school work,” York said. “In here, we monitor grades. I keep them focused.”
York wears a mask and visor.
“The windows are open,” he said.
John Kauinana Stadium, though, is not.
“I’m a football coach, teacher, mentor, (but) my personal feelings don’t matter because I am not a doctor, governor, mayor nor school administrator. It is well known that the Hawaii youth sports world would want to be activated, but we trust in our elected government officials and DOE superiors that they are about the safety of all first and foremost,” York said. “When my principal and athletic director tell me we can go, I will unleash my beasts because we are dying to get on the field.”
Konawaena football coach Brad Uemoto agreed.
“I truly believe a player being limited to the exposure of just his or her teammates would be better than attending on-campus school, exposed to hundreds of different classmates on any given day,” he said. “Having on-campus practices while following protocols with student-athletes who distant-learn would be the best compromise to our situation.”
‘Iolani girls basketball coach Dean Young has mixed feelings. The Raiders have won the last two state championships.
“I’m a huge believer in the importance and benefit of sports for the physical and mental health of students along with their social and character development. However, if you assume that students are not returning to in-person education because it isn’t deemed safe enough, I’m not sure how you can justify participation in higher-risk activities,” Young said. “High school sports is much more than just being able to play a game, but the safety of the students, the adults involved and all the families is the most important concern.”
Mid-Pacific boys basketball coach Robert Shklov said the school will begin optional on-campus classes soon, in early November.
“If schools are not at in-person learning mode, it would seem to indicate or suggest to me that we have not reached certain benchmarks or criteria that would allow for a safe return-to-play scenario. I would be uncomfortable with coaching student-athletes in person if their teachers were not permitted by the school to instruct them,” Shklov said. “Mid-Pacific has done a fantastic job regularly communicating with all of us despite this constantly fluctuating landscape. We are all anxiously awaiting the all-clear signal. I do not envy the administrators who are making these tough decisions, but I’m so thankful for their continued hard work to get us back to any semblance of normal activity.”
At Punahou, students have the option of virtual learning, but many have chosen to return to campus. Punahou interim football coach Leonard Lau is also a teacher at Dole Middle School.
“I feel it is appropriate that all sports follow in step with the Department of Health, HHSAA and school protocols for consistency and uniformity,” Lau said. “If not, we are putting everyone involved at risk. I would hope that alignment rather than agreement is the goal for all extra-curricular programs.”
New Moanalua football coach Vince Nihipali is staunch about safety, too.
“I am all for it to go on as long as there are clear protocols to be followed. If blended learning is adopted and/or schools are back in session, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to (play),” he said.
New Damien girls basketball coach Mark Arquero has several players diligently working out on their own through the pandemic.
“I would love to get the season underway, but it’s important for our players to understand that they’re student-athletes, and the first part of it is student,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be 100-percent in the sense that everyone is back on campus with a full work schedule, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but they should have the opportunity to be in class in some form or another. It will bring back a sense of normalcy so long as the schools can maintain a level of safety protocols.”
Kamehameha girls volleyball coach Chris Blake has guided the program to 10 state titles.
“In Utah, volleyball doesn’t seem to be too much at high risk. Football across the country in the pros, college and high schools are having the same challenges because of the contact and how training is done. At Kamehameha, we’re mainly in a distance-learning format, but we’re preparing to roll in students in a phased approach, and athletes are also a part of that phased approach,” Blake said.
“I think with a differentiated approach, our neighbor islands have different needs and phases. To hold them to the same standard as Oahu, that may be unreasonable,” Blake added. “That’s the million-dollar question. What’s feasible? What’s reasonable? We have families in Hawaii are living in multi-generational households.”
Blake noted the way individual student-athletes, as well as leagues, are forming a no-crossover environment.
“When you’re beginning to go into these pods or bubbles, you also have to make other choices and sacrifices. Making a commitment (to play sports) means everyone in your ohana is safe. If something happens, you’re putting others at risk. It’s the ultimate way of sacrificing, the price to pay to do what’s right for your team,” he said. “The assumption is everyone is operating in good faith. We’re all int he same pod even if we’re in different leagues. Cross-league competition may be off the table. I’m not sure where that lies, whether the OIA and ILH competing against each other is on the table.”
On Kauai, restrictions have been consistent. first-year Kapaa head football coach Mike Tresler believes each island’s league should be able to make an autonomous decision regarding the pandemic.
“The DOE and HHSAA are not considering state tournaments. If that is the case, then shouldn’t each island be given the latitude to determine sports participation given proper protocols? The COVID impact to each island has been different,” Tresler said. “We’ve been fortunate on Kauai relative to COVID cases and community spread.”
In fact, the KIF may have been able to pull off a fall season. There are only four actively participating high schools.
“Hindsight is 20/20, (but) I’m looking back on Kauai’s track record with COVID. It would have made sense to have had a (fall) season completed before reopening,” Tresler said, referring to tourism.
The state re-opened the industry last week. Tens of thousands of visitors have arrived in the islands since.
“My point is that the future is uncertain on how each community will be impacted by the reopening. Therefore, it makes sense to allow those communities to determine how they manage high school sports relative to their impacts. It is not an easy decision. We’ve figured out how to deal with COVID impacts for other activities and businesses. I’m sure we can figure out how to allow sports to continue or re-start.”
At Hilo, Vikings football coach Lave Suiaunoa extols the virtue of patience.
“The safety of our students is always our No. 1 priority. I believe that there are people working very hard and around the clock to finalize a plan to protect our kids and continue their education safely,” Suiaunoa said. “When those plans are in place and 100-percent call back for our students to school is a go, then yes, we should resume with football in the spring.”
Blake hopes for more discussion.
“One of the things I’ve seen over these seven, eight months is that things will change. Plans are just a guide. It’s good to plot those things out and then plan for them, and then shift when the optics are bad. I’d rather us be more careful and say we did too much planning rather than, ‘We could’ve done more.’ I’d rather have (a plan where) we can roll stuff back,” he said.”
Klaneski is among those willing to make more plans than less.
“We are working really hard to finalize our return to play and campus protocols to make it safe for our kids to return and get ready for a possible season,” he said. “The kids deserve it and we need to give them the best chance to be successful. The reality we live in today has really made it hard, but I think if we all do our part, we can definitely get back out there.”
At Kahuku, Carleton Weimer Field is empty and the bleachers are silent. Carvalho has faith that his locker room will be properly sanitized, that his young Red Raiders will fully embrace all protocols.
“For the sake of my players and the sacrifice that families and players have made to stay in Hawaii and finish their high school careers here,” he said, “I sincerely hope they approve our season.”