There are programs that flourish with numbers, and there are programs that are simply small.
Anuenue falls in the latter category. Na Koa is nearing the end of their seventh season of varsity football and it has been their most difficult. They fielded a hardy group of 18 to 20 players most of the way, though they had 24 on the gridiron in Saturday’s game against Kalani.
In previous years, Anuenue had many players with experience. This year, they had just a couple.
“We have a bunch of freshmen and sophomores who started this year. They came in with very little experience, but with big hearts and they just wanted to play,” Coach Kealoha Wengler said.
Wengler sees a promising future for the program despite the school’s tiny enrollment. You could see it at the Kalani game, with plenty of young students in attendance. Wengler says they have a lot of athletic sixth and seventh graders. But until that group enters high school, numbers will be a factor.
“The future of the program looks promising. The near future looks tough. We might want to consider 8-man football. The numbers when they get low like this and people are playing out of position, safety becomes an issue,” he said.
That’s why he’s going to fly to Maui soon to take a close look at the Maui Interscholastic League’s 8-man football format. The MIL officially sanctioned it as a championship sport last year with four participating teams. Seabury Hall, the inaugural champion, is off to a 4-0 start this fall and is the favorite again. Among the Spartans’ wins was a 32-20 tilt at Ka‘u.
“I’m going to visit Maui and see what they’re doing with 8-man football. It would give us a little more leeway. We’d have more depth. I’m willing to learn or do whatever it takes to keep our program alive. I see it flourishing on Maui and Molokai.”
Like Anuenue, Ka‘u has a tradition of football and a strong love for the game. But numbers have dwindled at ex-plantation towns across the state. The Trojans have played JV teams and an exhibition game at Molokai is on the schedule. They’ve already battled the state’s top 8-man team, losing at home to Seabury Hall 32-20.
There’s also growing interest in 8-man football on Lanai, where the high school team has never fielded a football team. The community has supported its Pop Warner team, the Lanai Na Koa Rams, for its five years of existence. There’s a newly christened field that allows the Pop Warner team to host games for the first time this fall.
At Anuenue, Wengler and his staff are major force. He intends to keep the program alive via 8-man football. By the time the sixth graders hit high school, maybe then they’ll return to 11-man.
He’s moving forward with this possibility even though there is no existing 8-man league in the OIA. Wengler is, without a doubt, a builder and an optimist.
“We never give up on any play. A lesson that we teach them on the football field that translates to the real world is never give up,” he said.