8 is enough (extended)

(Here’s the longer version of the story that was published in this morning’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Game video highlights from the MIL and BIIF by Sports Viz and Cyrus Perry are posted below.)

Thirty-one is a good number.

Fifteen is certainly not, not in football. More than a year ago, Laurie Koustik had a complex issue to deal with. Her 11-man football team at Kohala, where she is the athletic director, was wobbly again. Forty-one student-athletes had signed up for football in the spring. By summer, there was scarcely a football player in the weight room.

By July, the decision was hard, but simple. No football for the Cowboys in 2013. Not with just 15 committed players.

Everything changed with the birth of 8-man football in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation this year. Kohala now has 31 committed players on its roster. They are charter members of the league’s 8-man movement along with Ka‘u and Pahoa.

The struggle to keep a sport alive in Kohala wasn’t new. In the 1990s, it took the rise of the local feeder program to build the varsity team, especially when Pop Warner coach Anthony Manantan was hired.

But in recent years, players would turn out to start the season, then skip practices knowing that low numbers would guarantee them playing time.

Koustik hit the reset button. The spark to get the program going again the right way, she surmised, would be 8-man football. There were doubters. The eight-man game was entirely new to the Big Island. Coaches and former players mostly balked the concept, even though it was a big hit in rural areas across the mainland.

But Koustik persevered. She talked about the success of 8-man football in the Maui Interscholastic League. At Seabury Hall, a school that had never fielded a team on the gridiron, then-AD Steve Colflesh collected equipment and gear, and in 2010, the Spartans hit the field for exhibition games. Over a two-year period, the small school in upcountry Olinda began to prosper under Colflesh, a former high school football coach (11-man) in California.

Other small schools also developed programs. Hana, Molokai and St. Anthony got excited about the chance to play football. For Hana and Molokai, this was new. For St. Anthony, it mean reinvigorating a program that had struggled to field an 11-man team for years.

Seabury Hall won the first two official MIL 8-man football championships. Colflesh has since retired, but the wheels keep turning. The Spartans’ dedication and focus — Seabury Hall is a school more known for track, cross country and soccer — is proof that the 8-man game opens doors wide for any determined small school.

So, the question is, could the sport thrive on Oahu? There are 29 institutions in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu. Seven of them are football members, and one of them, Division II Pac-Five, is actually comprised of 19 small schools.

The Wolfpack practice at Mid-Pacific Institute in Manoa. A few of those 19 Pac-Five schools are miles away in Central or Leeward Oahu. Hanalani, located in Mililani, had some interest in 8-man for a time, but it never materialized into a concrete purpose. The school that spawned record-breaking quarterback P.J. Minaya and elite pass catcher Darin Kamealoha in 2008 and ’09 has just two varsity players at Pac-Five now. At the intermediate level, there are four from Hanalani.

“Currently, there’s no discussions,” athletic director Keoni Haole said of 8-man football.

Minaya and Kamealoha would commute to Pac-Five football practice and face the brutal traffic logjam at Mapunapuna, so they’d miss half of practice anyway. Haole says their football players are transported by the school now immediately after school.

There other small private schools that could one day play 8-man football. Along the Leeward Coast, there’s Island Pacific and Lanakila Baptist. On Red Hill, there’s Christian Academy. But since the recession peaked in 2009, enrollment at most schools has declined precipitously. Survival is the name of the game and luxuries like football are out of the question.

At Kohala, Koustic estimates that refurbishing football equipment that had been sitting for two years will have a total cost of $2,500. An anonymous $5,000 donation has provided for 15 new sets of helmets and shoulder pads.
Haole doesn’t see 8-man football at his school in the near future.

“I assume it would be my whole budget. We’re not in a possibility to even think that far,” he said. “One day, hopefully.”

Anuenue is one of the smallest members of the Oahu Interscholastic Association. The vast majority of the public-school league has enough enrollment to support 11-man football, though there have been some struggles at smaller schools like Waialua. Anuenue played its first league game of the season against Kaimuki with just 16 players after injuries took a toll in preseason.

Former coach Kealoha Wengler was there when the program began in 2007.

“When I was coaching, we did play one year with 16, but you can’t have freshmen. They have to be 16 legit players,” he said, recalling a win over Pearl City.

After that game, two of Anuenue’s two-way starters returned from injury to bolster the roster. Even in good years, though, numbers never matched what the bigger programs had, and yet, his teams always competed. In 2013, with declining enrollment at the high school level and a good amount of athletes at the middle school, Wengler considered the possibilities.

“When it was first introduced to me, I thought, ‘No way. I’d rather take a snap with 10 people than go 8-man.’ But we realized we were playing teams with fresh legs,” Wengler said. “I really wanted to push for 8-man.”

Anuenue’s amazing Ironmen put up massive rushing statistics over the years, but they often doubled up and played every down on defense and special teams, too.

“No matter how much conditioning you do, by the third quarter, you’re cramping, vomiting, dehydration. Then it’s not safe to go with light numbers,” Wengler said. “Guys like Ikaika Gante, they would go the whole game, but once they start cramping out, you can’t do anything. There would be two or three guys cramping up on the ride home. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, behind the scenes.

They make the commitment and they come out a lot stronger as people, but if we had 8-man, we would be a lot more equal on the field.”

When Wengler says we, he means it in spirit, not body. Since last year, he moved his family to the Big Island, where he can afford a home and avoid the commute from his previous residence in Ewa all the way to Anuenue, which is in Palolo Valley. He’s a counselor at Kamehameha-Hawaii, where son Manu is a defensive lineman.

Until the decision to relocate, he was on staff at Anuenue, where administration was open to a possible move to 8-man.

“Our biggest cost would’ve been air fare to fly to the Big Island and Maui to play (exhibition) games. Our principal, Charles Naumu, was willing to support it,” Wengler said. “All it takes is one Oahu team that does it and gets out there. Then other teams will follow.”

The OIA, with its 23 football-playing members, has always been pressed to make do with meager athletic budgets. Losing teams to 8-man football would mean fewer games and lesser revenue, football coordinator Harold Tanaka said.

The BIg Island is ripe for 8-man football, which is bringing life to programs that had been dormant or flatlining. Ka‘u got the ball rolling last year by playing exhibition games against JV programs. The Trojans even hosted Seabury Hall for a game. The enthusiasm for football in old plantation communities will lead to much-needed revenue for the programs – BIIF schools keep the gate revenue for all home football games. They’ll need every cent; the local bus company recently upped rentals by 25 percent, Koustik said. The cost of busing Kohala’s football team to a game at Ka‘u — a 143-mile round trip — is now $650.

The MIL is expanding this season from four to six teams. Kihei Charter and Lanai have joined in. Lanai, in particular, is especially jazzed. The local football field was refurbished for the Pop Warner program last year, allowing that team to host games and play a full schedule for the first time. Even with the inconvenience of commuting on the water by ferry, Molokai hasn’t missed a beat and Lanai is jumping on board. If the Superferry was still around, maybe Oahu’s smaller schools would be playing 8-man football in the MIL.

It’s not so far fetched. In a four-year span during the 1960s, Ted Ura’s Hilo Vikings played in the MIL (11-man) and won one league title before returning to the BIIF.

Maybe 8-man football is embraced in rural areas because communities see the need, not just the oddity, of seeing just 16 players on a smaller field. Wengler had hoped to see some creative thinking and acceptance of the game on Oahu.

“Guys looking for a college scholarship, they’ll got to a Division I program. 8-man would allow us to compete with teams at our level. Radford and Kaiser, they don’t belong in D-II with us (Anuenue), Waialua, Kalani, the smaller schools,” he said. “It’s not too much the players who don’t want it. It’s the coaches. The logistics of fields and coaches who are available.”

Wengler offered a proposal to the league at one point, using the league’s “Blue Division” in girls volleyball as a model.

“Schools with big numbers like Mililani or Campbell could field an 8-man team with kids who get cut. That would be our own division,” he said.

The beginning of 8-man football on Oahu starts with education, Wengler said.
“There has to be a breakout session at one of the coaches’ meetings so they can see it’s legit. Coaches, what they’re teaching is what they’ve learned. They’d have to go to clinics and learn, get knowledge,” he said.

It’s been done, adapting to the 8-man game. After leading the dynasty at Saint Louis, Cal Lee coached Arena Football League 2’s Hawaiian Islanders before being hired at UH.

Learning the game helps, but emotion goes a long way in old places with provincial pride. Maybe the 8-man game belongs on the neighbor islands, where high school sports is often a big, big deal.

On Oahu, there are other options, other opportunities, other distractions. But all it would take to form an official championship sport in a league is three participating teams. And if the ILH or OIA form an 8-man football league — perhaps as a combined entity — that would make it three leagues in the sport and the HHSAA could then offer a state tournament.

“A state championship, that’s something we’re really going to try and push for,” Koustik said.

For schools like Seabury Hall and Kohala, there’s something different about the game. There’s excitement for athletes who gravitate to the game and didn’t have that chance to play until now.

“Absolutely, it’s nice to have football in the fall,” Koustik said. “Now they’re active, school pride is increasing. They really want to make a go at it. It’s a really positive vibe.”

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Ka‘u had to forfeit an exhibition game with Kealakehe due to low numbers caused by academic probation. In addition, the after effects of Hurricane Iselle stranded some players who couldn’t attend practice and get their minimum 10 workouts in.

At Kohala, eight of the 31 players were on AP, but made the grade check later. Some problems are universal, but administrators keep rolling with it, this crazy new 8-man game.

“It can’t be something we want more than they want. Now the onus is on the coaching staff. They know that I’m supportive of it,” Koustik said.

At $6 admission per adult, a recent Kohala home game generated a modest, but much-appreciated $700 in revenue. Kohala topped KS-Hawaii’s JV team, 32-22. Koustik thinks with more victories, more of the community will show up for Saturday afternoon kickoffs.

“It’s been a very, very positive situation,” she said. “The kids, you can tell, they are real grateful for the opportunity.”

Seabury Hall at Ka‘u, 8-man football, Sept. 6, 2013
Video by Sports Viz

Seabury Hall vs. Molokai, 8-man football, Sept. 26, 2013
Video by Cyrus Perry

Seabury Hall at Ka‘u, 8-man football, Sept. 6, 2013
Video by Sports Viz

Ka‘u at Kamehameha-Hawaii, 8-man football, Oct. 2, 2013
Video by Sports Viz

Kealakehe JV vs. Ka‘u, 8-man football, Oct. 25, 2013
Video by Sports Viz

Molokai vs. Seabury Hall, 8-man football, Sept. 26, 2013
Video by Cyrus Perry

St. Anthony vs. Kihei Charter, 8-man football, Aug. 28, 2014
Video by Cyrus Perry

2012 Michigan 8-man state championship

2012 Colorado 8-man state championship

2011 Oklahoma 8-man all-star game


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