Sometimes, in a land with perhaps two of the most unusual high school leagues in the nation, the best battles occur before the big dance.
The immense size of the OIA, which has 23 active football programs, is matched by very few leagues nationally. The ILH, with a total of six football teams, is left in a conundrum, seeing quality programs sit during the state tournament due to basic mathematics.
For the ILH, this is true every year, every season, in almost every sport. Two weeks ago, on the girls volleyball court, No. 2 ‘Iolani led No. 3 Kamehameha 2-0. A resilient defense plus the determined effort of two-time Star-Advertiser player of the year Elena Oglivie had the Raiders on the brink of securing a state-tournament berth. The deeper team, Kamehameha, rallied on its home floor for a five-set win in an epic match for the ages.
Kamehameha advanced and, two days later, swept regular-season first-place Punahou for the ILH crown. They went to the state tournament. ‘Iolani’s season was over.
On Friday, on the gridiron, Damien and ‘Iolani settle their tie in the ILH Division I standings. As the league’s only two teams in D-I football, only one team can advance to the state tournament.
The longtime private-school rivals have pushed each other over the past several years, creating a pattern of adaptation and survival in a challenging environment. ‘Iolani reached the D-I state final in 2016. Damien got to the title game in ’17. Each team finished 6-2 in regular-season play this fall, 8-2 overall. When the teams met the first time, Damien quarterback Jake Holtz was ejected in the second half.
On the surface, it seemed Holtz was frustrated after his team came up short on a crucial play. Coach Eddie Klaneski says it was more than that.
“I sent a video in to all the referees about the first game. The first time I did that in nine years. ‘Iolani plays physical. They hit us, had a lot of unnecessary shots to the head that weren’t called, not just against Jake but our receivers, our running backs,” Klaneski said. “We took it for what it is, showed it to our kids and talked to our kids, not taking it lightly. We’re going to be ready for that. We’ll be under control.”
‘Iolani coach Wendell Look seemed to agree to disagree.
“It’s football. We try to play the game right. We try to play hard and play smart, and we try to play fair,” he said. “That’s how we teach them to play the game.”
Prior to Holtz’s ejection, he had run for a touchdown, but also got picked off twice by ‘Iolani’s defense. With the ejection, he was suspended, by rule, for two games. Sophomore QB Logan Lacio stepped up and Damien won those two games. Holtz, however, offers size at 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds. He has scrambling ability and speed.
“For Jake, he’s a very emotional person. He really gets into the game. A physical kind of guy. We’ve had conversations with him since that time. Not really trying to put too much into it. Hoping his two games out when he had to sit out kind of set him straight. He’s going to have to understand we want him to play with emotion and play hard, but he also has to understand, you can’t do that,” said Klaneski, who was familiar to football fans for his career as a tough defensive back at Hawaii before becoming head coach at Damien.
“In between the snap and the whistle, he can be as physical as he wants. But he has to learn to walk away. He got hit a lot with some cheap shots, to be honest, and that’s what set him off. He just needs to grow and mature from that. He’s learning to walk away when we practice,” Klaneski said.
This year’s ‘Iolani defense is as sound and strong as it has been in the past decade, maybe. From lineman Shayden Molina to safeties Micah Camat and Lanakila Pei, they have all grown stronger and bigger.
Defensive coordinator Delbert Tengan and staff have created a cornerstone weapon. It’s not as exotic, perhaps, as Leilehua’s defensive look. The Raiders aren’t as large, sideline to sideline, as Punahou’s superlative defense. But there is something rare about this group. Klaneski is counting on his squad to win the mental game.
“What it comes down to is executing our blocks up front, running the correct routes and making the right reads at quarterback,” he said. “Against ‘Iolani, it’s about minimizing mistakes and executing the game plan.”