Changes are coming to the Big Island football hierarchy whether smaller schools like Konawaena like it or not.
It is a classic trickle-down, or trickle-up, scenario. And the dominoes are falling.
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported today that the Big Island Interscholastic Federation will avoid mismatches between Division I dynasty Hilo and recent eight-man football convert Kohala by using a divisional scheduling format. But the chain-reaction result is that D-II powerhouse Konawaena, and D-II Honokaa, are likely to move up to D-I.
Here’s what triggered it during this offseason.
First, Pahoa decided a few months ago to walk away from eight-man football and enter the fray of Division II in the BIIF. Despite decades of flaky in-and-out participation, the Daggers have been consistently committed in recent years, and the numbers have been in the 30-player range. Too many for eight-man, and probably sustainable at 11-man.
That led Ka‘u, the eight-man champion and annual eight-man powerhouse, to read the writing on the wall. With no Pahoa, Ka‘u would be in eight-man with Kohala. Not feasible, so Pahoa opted to move up to 11-man D-II as well. And Kohala has no choice but to follow, despite having the lowest roster numbers over the years. Coach Chad Atkins is optimistic there about getting more participation from players who were in Pop Warner Unlimited play last fall.
With these former eight-man teams joining D-II, Honokaa very recently decided it wants to return to the world of D-I, but has not yet officially declared for D-I. Honokaa was one of the last programs in the BIIF to move down to D-II after struggling in D-I. The Dragons won the BIIF D-I championship in 2009, losing to Farrington 48-16 in the state tournament. Honokaa would seem to be a better fit in D-II, but with former coach Fred Lau in charge, expectations have risen.
Remaining teams in D-II like Kamehameha-Hawaii and Hawaii Prep will stay put. KS-Hawaii will lose a strong senior class to graduation, but is likely to contend again for the D-II title.
If KS-Hawaii stays in D-II and has a diminished schedule in the eyes of some coaches and players, there is a possibility that some of the Keaukaha-based student-athletes there will transfer to Hilo. That would only make the BIIF’s D-I dynasty even stronger. The Vikings were D-I state champions in 2017 and were state runners-up last fall.
With Honokaa on the brink of moving up, Konawaena is waiting. The Wildcats will likely move to D-I rather than play everyone, including the recent eight-man programs, twice. So, if Konawaena moves to D-I, Honokaa will follow. That would give the BIIF seven D-I teams and four in D-II. Migration from one classification to another can be a tricky thing.
Defending BIIF D-II champion Konawaena, with an enrollment of less than 900, nearly won the D-II state title in 2017, losing in six overtimes to Lahainaluna, 75-69. The Lunas, unlike Konawaena, have no need nor intention to move into D-I. Konawaena, which will host Mission Viejo (Calif.) in August, could remain in D-II.
“I feel like staying down, but it doesn’t benefit anyone,” Wildcats coach Brad Uemoto said. “The problem is when we talk about the state-level teams in D-II, we are perfectly placed to compete. That’s my dilemma.”
Unlike Lahainaluna, which plays a fully meshed schedule against D-I and D-II teams in the Maui Interscholastic League, Konawaena would be limited to D-II competition in the BIIF.
Though there is no word from the league, generally, more D-I football members means larger attendance thanks to varsity and JV fan support. Konawaena has a competitive JV team, while HPA has not fielded JV in decades.
“I will not risk playing a D-II schedule with no JV games and the possibility of the former eight-man teams forfeiting games,” Uemoto said.
Of course, there are other domino possibilities. What if Kamehameha-Hawaii decided to take the leap, as well, and move to BIIF D-I? That would leave BIIF D-II with Hawaii Prep, Pahoa, Ka‘u and Kohala. All to make sure coaches and players at KS-Hawaii stay put. That would create a BIIF D-I of: Konawaena, Kealakehe, Honokaa, Hilo, Waiakea, KS-Hawaii.
That scenario is unlikely. More likely is former eight-man teams forfeiting against the behemoth, Hilo. KS-Hawaii already forfeited a game against Hilo late in the 2018 regular season. Small programs like HPA forfeited a game here and there — usually against then-dominant Kealakehe — years ago when the schedule was fully integrated, D-I and D-II teams combined in a round-robin format.
The standing format right now, according to the BIIF, is six D-I teams and five in D-II. That would give the D-I teams — all have JV squads — a double-round robin of 10 total games in the regular season. The five teams in BIIF D-II would also have a double-round robin, for a total of eight games. It makes sense from a league-wide logistical standpoint. It just doesn’t make sense at the next level, the state tourney, for a program like Konawaena.
A tiered schedule that allows Konawaena to play D-I teams —as last year’s schedule did — while keeping the converted eight-man programs to avoid the likes of Hilo — might make sense on several levels. However, that concept is unlikely to be approved, Uemoto said.
Konawaena is likely to declare for D-I, but official declaration doesn’t have to be made until June. Fans at historic Julian Yates Field will be up for either division. The Wildcats were a BIIF dynasty in the 1980s and highly competitive in the pre-division years until moving down to D-II in the early 00s when the state went to two divisions. There are currently three divisions in HHSAA football: Open, D-I and D-II.
The BIIF will reconvene to determine schedules in April.