Neighbor island coaches hoping leagues buck trend of Oahu

Lahainaluna’s Susitina Namoa (33) went to the basket past Iolani’s Tori Lynn Maeda (3) during the first half of the HHSAA Division I Girls Basketball State Championship quarterfinals at the 2018 state tournament. Photo by Cindy Russell/

Sometimes, even when outside pressure mounts, the neighbor islands go their own way.

What that means for high school sports is that the Big Island, Maui and Kauai sometimes stand alongside their Oahu counterparts and, sometimes, though, they don’t. That was apparent at HIADA’s annual conferences in years past. Even when the two largest leagues, the Oahu Interscholastic Association and Interscholastic League of Honolulu clearly outnumbered the neighbor island leagues, the latter often stood with an opposing viewpoint — because that was best for its student-athletes and communities.

That’s the process. When the OIA cancelled winter sports on Saturday, it sent shock waves through the islands not because it was unexpected, but because of the timing and nuances. The abbreviated winter season in the OIA was expected to begin on Jan. 4 — today — but any semblance of a delay or shrinkage of the already shortened season was not shared with the league’s coaches.

When the Big Island Interscholastic Federation meets on Tuesday, there will be much to discuss. COVID-19 rates on the neighbor islands have been significantly lower than they are on Oahu. The same goes for Kauai and, for the most part, Maui County.

“The outer island high schools have a unique situation and an opportunity to be very creative in making a season happen for our student-athletes,” Kapaa boys basketball coach Kamahalo Kauhane said. “Our situation here on Kauai is night and day (compared to) what’s happening on other islands. Our mayor and his leadership have done an excellent job of creating a safe plan for Kauai Island. We are hopeful that after almost a year of this pandemic and lockdown of sports, a courageous plan has been developed. Whether it’s the BIIF, KIF or MIL, we would need some brave leadership willing to take a step forward and let them play in 2021.”

Autonomy and independence are tied to legalities. When the private-school ILH cancelled roughly half of its winter sports — the higher-risk ones — that also meant the league would not be responsible for any litigation to follow if those sports were still pursued by individual schools. Currently, several private schools are formulating a plan to play exhibition series in what some coaches consider a version of “bubble” competition.

The three-island Maui Interscholastic League will have an administrative meeting on Tuesday. Longtime Lahainaluna girls basketball coach Todd Rickard is hoping for the best.

“The decision isn’t up to us (as coaches), but the MIL is better off right now than leagues on Oahu. I think if we had some protocols put into place and get the kids on the court and the field, but the leagues usually follow suit with each other, so I’m not too optimistic,” he said.

Rickard has seen actual games, or scrimmages, happening on Maui in 7v7 flag football and softball leagues.

“The risk is there whether you play sports or not, whether it is with the high school’s name on their chest or not. At school, the kids are confined to one area. People are going to play no matter what. The bottom line comes down to the liability. We want the seniors to finish their high school careers the proper way, but there’s that possibility about liability. All of this is about liability issues. We all know about safety protocols. We’re not naive to that, but no one wants to accept or assume that liability. They’ve got to decide if they’re going to make the call and accept the responsibility.”

Rickard’s experience through this pandemic is becoming more common across the state, both as a coach and a parent who has a football-playing son.

“We’ll probably still travel with our club team and play pickup ball here,” he said. “I hope we have a high school winter season. I hope our neighbor island leagues put their foot down. My son is asking me if he’s going to have a (football) season. There are millions of kids asking the same question. You look at it from both sides, but as a coach, it’s frustrating. They’re not giving us a definite answer about football, kicking the can down the road.”

By mid-day on Monday, this was released by the Department of Education, Maui District.

“While we did not experience any COVID-19 impacts to our campuses over winter break, the county is seeing an increase in cases. Out of an abundance of caution, and in consultation with Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) leadership, the Hawaii State Department of Health (DOH), and Maui County officials, we have decided to push back the scheduled shift to blended learning until Feb. 1.”

The Big Island Interscholastic Federation is incorporated and independent of the rest of the state. In theory, the league could continue any plan to field winter sports. Modify them. Protocol them. Funding for sports doesn’t come from an outside entity, as administrators fully understand with every massive bus rental bill.

On Hawaii Island, distance between communities and schools is part of the DNA. Provincial, territorial vibes and immense pride when schools compete. That spacing is also part of the reason why there has been more success on the island in combating coronavirus. Coaches and trainers administering protocols is a new part of the job, and the most important now.

“We’re not practicing at all, but if they said we play tomorrow, my boys would be ready to roll,” Kohala basketball coach Kihei Kapeliela said.

Kohala captured the Division II state title last year. Testing for COVID-19, he noted, would make all the difference.

“I know it wouldn’t cover all costs, but me and my staff would give up our pay to cover testing for my team. I’m sure our community would help, too. We just want to play,” Kapeliela said. “The community supports the school 110 percent, guarantee. Everywhere I go, people are asking me if there’s going to be a season.”

Longtime Hawaii Preparatory Academy Athletic Director Stephen Perry also coaches the school’s girls soccer team.

“I hope there are some BIIF competitions this winter. There are schools interested in playing. Hopefully, we do what works best for our Big Island kids,” Perry said.

His team has been in workout mode despite the lingering uncertainty about high school sports.

“Our practices have been great. Kids have bought in. They are longing to play someone now,” he said. “If we have three schools interested in playing a sport, we should be good to go. If no DOE schools commit, that’s their call.”

If the league’s private schools are the only programs to pursue winter sports, that would include competition for HPA, Kamehameha-Hawaii and possibly Makua Lani in boys soccer, for example. Yet, the league’s bylaws do not identify members as public or private schools. They are simply members of the BIIF.

That’s why the league could be confident enough to move forward. Any liability issues would be handled by the league.

“If there is a BIIF sport or schedule, then insurance is covered,” Perry noted.

That alone is no guarantee, of course. If the league votes to remain dormant this winter, schools could do what the private school boys basketball programs are trying to do on Oahu. Exhibition games and series, organized the way teams piecemeal together preseason games. Agreeing on COVID-19 protocols makes 2021 an entirely new universe for coaches, trainers and athletic directors.

Kauhane hopes the KIF can play on what is widely regarded as the safest of the state’s islands.

“I hope our KIF leadership team would have the courage to make the call,” he said. “Or this (cancellations) will be the norm.”

Rickard would support transparency in the process as coaches and parents — and student-athletes — wait.

“I hope they at least give everyone a chance. If they end up shutting things down, that’s fine,” he said. “But at least try.”


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