Christmas came early for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association this year.
The Division II state football tournament in November was like a big, bright, red and green present under the tree that Lahainaluna and Konawaena opened slowly and with intense anticipation as the seven overtime periods marched on with the Lunas prevailing 75-69.
But the early-arriving Santa Claus did not stop there. The whole package — Open, Division I and Division II — was intricately woven and tied together with an elegant gold bow at the end of the Nov. 18 tripleheader night, when Saint Louis edged Kahuku 31-28 for the Open title in what was one of the most exciting back-and-forth non-overtime games in the history of Hawaii high school championships.
The middle game, in which Damien took a lead, lost it and then stayed close to Hilo most of the way before losing 35-19, is a testament to the fact that schools all across the state appear to be where they belong in the three tiers.
This type of outcome was not expected by most, due to the fact that the new format was sort of a last-gasp compromise due to some warring interleague factions.
That contentious atmosphere, however, may begin to be put in the past. The key word here is “may.” There are no guarantees on it. Of course it’s possible that things could go the other way and the state football wizards get farther and farther apart in 2018.
To many, when that compromise came to fruition in the late summer, the state tournament looked severely watered down with only four teams in each division.
But what happened in reality, however, was that by limiting the field to four teams in each of the three divisions, it made it much more difficult to get into the tournament. Those survivors, so to speak, didn’t get there by accident. They were combat hardened and ready to compete at their highest possible level.
Two other things that led to more overall competitiveness were the elimination of byes for top-seeded teams and the fact that all advancing teams played only twice in three weeks instead of some teams having to play all three weeks.
Take Waianae, for instance. Nobody expected the Seariders to be competitive against Kahuku in the first round of the Open tournament after losing badly to the Red Raiders in the regular season. But, with two weeks to prepare and hear from the community and coaches just how important it was for them to show up and make a stand, the Seariders nearly pulled off an upset. Kahuku won it 10-7 on Sol-Jay Maiava‘s 8-yard pass to Duke Heffernan with 58 seconds to go. It should be noted that All-State defensive player of the year Kanai Mauga of Waianae was a step away from breaking up that play. You can see the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s full All-State team here that ran in Sunday’s newspaper.
In one sense, the state may have benefited from Kahuku’s comeback because it can be argued that the Red Raiders, instead of Waianae, in the final was more of a compelling matchup.
And in the final, once again, the prevailing thought was that Saint Louis was just too powerful for Kahuku. Talk about hearing it from the community? The Red Raiders fans always show up en masse at the stadium … all the way from the North Shore … and do the tomahawk chopping in unison and loudly. You think they don’t tell the players how important it is to win that game? Showing up is nice too, and Kahuku did way more than that, holding a 28-24 lead before letting it slip away with 37 seconds left.
And, don’t forget, after Chevan Cordeiro‘s winning TD bomb to Jonah Panoke, Kahuku marched down the field only to have Maiva’s pass batted down at around the Saint Louis 5 by Noa Purcell as time ran out.
How exciting, right? What a topper to a day that lasted 11 hours — 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. The inconvenience to people who got home late was minor compared to the history being made.
And don’t forget, this early Christmas package (the state tournament as a whole) had so many close games throughout.
Here’s a look at all of the scores in the three tiers:
>> Saint Louis 31, Kahuku 28
>> Kahuku 10, Waianae 7
>> Saint Louis 47, Mililani 23
Division I final
>> Hilo 35, Damien 19
Division I semifinals
>> Damien 10, Kauai 7
>> Hilo 26, Maui 7
Division II final
>> Lahainaluna 75, Konawaena 69, 7 OTs
Division II semifinals
>> Lahainaluna 35, ‘Iolani 27
>> Konawaena 53, Waipahu 50
“For the first time (maybe ever), every state tournament football game was competitive,” HHSAA executive director Chris Chun wrote in an email to Hawaii Prep World on Friday. “Out of the 12 teams that participated, I believe 11 of them had leads at some point. I think only Waipahu didn’t, but even their loss was in a record-setting game and they had first and goal with under a minute left with a chance to win. Six games came down to the final possession, including all three in the Division II bracket. This was the most competitive and memorable state tournament in history on all three levels. Best of all, there were no serious injuries that resulted from mismatched competition.”
And so where does it go from here? There is a possibility that much of the commotion from the summer “may” disappear.
First of all, it was last summer that Oahu Interscholastic Association football coordinator Harold Tanaka said he believed his league was headed toward three tiers starting in 2018.
If that happens, it would eliminate most of the chaos right there. It was the OIA which decided to play in only two of the state divisions in 2017. The league did it to make a point and, from a tactical standpoint, it worked. It was a powerful enough move that it made the state go into scramble mode.
But like any good dual-threat quarterback, that scramble was taken to the house and Hawaii football fans were treated to a day like no other in its history.
If the OIA goes to three tiers for 2018, it would be in line with everybody else, guaranteeing a smooth state format for next year with no scrambling necessary.
So where are they at right now?
Tanaka said via cellphone Friday that the OIA is still a ways away from formulating a 2018 format and schedule.
But even if the league doesn’t decide to go to three tiers, changes are imminent. The OIA completed its two-year scheduling cycle and if it keeps the same format, some teams will be moved up or down based on their two-year performance.
One OIA football coach who did not want to be identified said Friday that he thinks the OIA is headed in a three-tier direction, but he is not privy to what is being discussed at the decision-making level of the athletic directors and principals.
The state football committee, the body tasked last summer with decisions that led to the aforementioned scramble to the house, will be meeting in January and it is expected that the OIA will have a format in place by then.
Keep your fingers crossed. The OIA might make a seamless adjustment that makes the three-tiered state tournament even stronger. But it could also do something completely different. There’s no reason to think that the OIA would separate itself from the state tournament completely, as some have speculated occasionally over the years, but some drastic move like that is always possible, too.
It helps to remember, though, that the biggest sticking point in the OIA’s eyes to the original three-tier format adopted two years ago has already been changed. In 2016, two ILH teams were in the Open Division and that was just not something the OIA wanted to play ball with, rightly or wrongly. They went along with it, reluctantly, in 2016, but were not about to do it again in 2017.
So, in 2017, only one ILH team was allowed into the upper tier and it came about as part of that desperation scramble that keeps cropping up in this story.
So, in Hawaii’s football forecast, expect some clear skies with a small chance of thunder showers.