Fair weather is a friend to all football coaches.
Fickle skies, not so much.
What happens when you live in a place that is inundated by precipitation on many a game night? What happens when your team has to be built for torrential rain in a location so moist that switching out leather footballs for rubber ones is an ancient tradition?
That’s been the boom-or-bust reality for many a East-side Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion over the decades. In East Hawaii, where Hilo is one of the wettest cities in America, the Vikings were giants half a century ago, overpowering the BIIF. Under Edmund Toma, the Vikings went 9-0 as an independent playing BIIF and Maui Interscholastic League teams in 1960.
Hilo won eight BIIF titles in a span of 11 seasons, all but one under Ted Ura. Leroy Simms (’79) and the late David Namauu (’91) also helped to bring titles to the campus, but since for the most part, the Viks were competitive and without championships. Waiakea had a remarkable run in the ’90s using Tim Lino’s version of UH’s spread option.
The common ingredient for Hilo’s title team in ’91 and Waiakea’s four titles in a row (’94-97): balanced offense. Robert Medeiros‘ cannon arm was a major weapon for the Viks. Lino’s Warrior teams could throw the ball, especially with Jonny Young at QB.
West-side teams had a huge chunk of success, but on the East side, winning games came not in spite of lots of rain. Being able to win in rain required the ability to run, in most cases. Often, it came at the expense of developing a passing attack. That was evident in the ’90s, when BIIF champions were often on the losing end of games in the old Neighbor Island Classic — an eight-year span. Waiakea upset Kauai 23-20, ending the league’s interisland, postseason losing streak in ’95.
Hilo’s 20-10 loss to No. 3-ranked Kahuku on Friday night at Aloha Stadium was a vivid, even concentrated summary of East Hawaii football over the decades. With those rare exceptions — gunslinging, mad-bombing Medeiros (Hilo) in ’91, smooth dual threat Young (Waiakea) in the mid-’90s — what works best for BIIF winners turns into a limitation at the state tourney.
The Vikings were ahead 10-0 at the half and 10-3 entering the final quarter. It was, and probably will be, the most remarkable defensive effort by a team in the D-I state tourney this fall. But the lack of a consistent passing game — and a key injury to RB Tristan Spikes — caught up with the hearty Viks. Sprinkle in some untimely penalties, and Kahuku’s offense seized momentum.
When two smashmouth teams meet, the deeper, bigger team usually prevails, as was the case on Friday. Kahuku reined in their sophomore quarterback (Samuta Avea) and stuck with pile-driving force out of its three-back set featuring 270-pound defensive tackle/running back Salanoa-Alo Wily.
The Vikings, in many ways, may have played their best game of the season, but they faced a team that was better at the smashmouth game than they were. It’s a 10-1 season that will go down as one of the finest in BIIF history — how many people expected Hilo to lead 10-3 after three quarters? Arguably, the closest the league has ever come to winning in the postseason against an ILH or OIA team since Konawaena nearly upset then-No. 1 Saint Louis in ’85.
The BIIF is now 0-16 in the Division I state tournament. Most years, it’s been about run-first, defensive-minded teams representing the league. But even the teams with some offensive balance rarely were tested consistently enough in league play. It’s usually been easier to just ground and pound, especially with a full round-robin in most years. By the opening round of the state tourney, even those balanced offenses have needed a half or so to get used to the speed of OIA powerhouses.
In theory, the creation of Division I and II state tournaments and the trickle-down effect to the state’s leagues stabilized smaller programs that struggled with numbers. D-I teams playing D-I teams makes football sense. But when it’s constantly wet and muddy, East Hawaii teams stick to what gets the job done. It will probably always be that way unless climate change turns Hilo into a dry spot.
No, the number of well-developed, college-level passers out of the BIIF isn’t deep, and many of them came from the dry West side. The best arms of the East side are found on baseball diamonds, mostly, and not so much on the gridiron.
It’s in Division II of the BIIF where passers prevail more often. Konawaena racked up huge numbers with Kahoali‘i Karratti at QB two years ago. Kamehameha-Hawaii, with Micah Kanehailua at QB, knocked out Nanakuli 42-20 on Saturday behind the senior’s three TD passes. Kanehailua threw the ball a whopping 170 times in the Warriors’ first five games. In the four following games, that tapered down drastically, possibly due to weather, possibly due to less necessity.
But he launched the pigskin 30 times against Nanakuli, the most since Sept. 27 against Hawaii Prep. Much like Lino’s Waiakea squads two decades ago, Dan Lyons‘ KS-Hawaii team is committed to a balanced attack. The rewards have justified the philosophy.
Can it work when it rains? It poured on the Warriors’ field in the second half, when they outscored Nanakuli 14-0. The Golden Hawks were tremendously balanced this season with a 1,000-yard rusher in Makaila Haina-Horswill, but the Warriors survived his three-TD onslaught and limited Nanakuli QB Kale Kanehailua. Lyons was confident about his defense coming into the battle, especially with his tall cornerbacks Alapaki Iaea (6-1, 185) and Preston Kalai (6-1, 190).
Note: When Hilo played KS-Hawaii on Sept. 5, the Vikings won 27-20.
In an era of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, it is stunning to see what a great defense can do. A great defense will get a team to the promised land. Conquering often requires more.