High school football has largely been frozen in the sultry confines of on-campus fields across Hawaii.
In the midst of a global pandemic, it took the cancellation of prep football to open the door for actual competition: a school team and a club team. Saint Louis, which set a precedent during the winter by playing 13 exhibition basketball games, became the first school to play a football scrimmage in the 2020-21 academic year. The Crusaders scrimmaged the Mill Vill Trojans on each of the past two Saturdays.
“I looked at the film. I’m just happy the kids can play. We’re letting some of the seniors play, trying to look at the young guys. Install some of our stuff. This was our last scrimmage,” Saint Louis coach Ron Lee said on Sunday.
The longtime high school and college coach — and proselytizer of the Run n’ Shoot offense heralded by Mouse Davis — couldn’t speak very long before his thoughts about this year’s graduating class surfaced.
“We’ve got Punahou and Kamehameha,” he said of exhibition games set for May 1 and May 6. “But it’s still a tough situation. I feel for the seniors. This is their season. I don’t think they realize what they lost out on yet. The camaraderie. The banquets. The friendships over a season. I don’t think they really feel that yet. By May 6, they may realize what they missed out on, not just our kids, but all the kids.”
One of those seniors is wide receiver Keanu Wallace, who Lee considers as fast, and possibly faster than former All-State pass catcher Roman Wilson. Wallace was primed to start after waiting his turn behind a deep, senior-heavy receiving crew in 2019.
“Keanu’s one of the guys I feel sorry for. He ran a 10.5 or 10.6 (100 meter dash) at ‘Iolani. Electronic time was 10.8. That’s pretty good at this time of year. He didn’t get his chance at a senior season,” Lee said. “He got accepted to Washington’s engineering school. Hopefully, he gets a chance to walk on.”
Lee has been outspoken about what he considers a lack of direction by leaders at higher levels in terms of high school sports, and football in particular. He warned about the seeming lack of a plan at the governing level back in the summer of 2020. He is concerned that a repeat of cancellations could happen again, even as spring sports have begun on Oahu.
On Saturday morning, for a 2 hours and 23 minutes, Lee paid no mind to the pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked. He was all about Crusader football. He was also witness to an improving Mill Vill team. The JPS high school division is making its debut. After the scrimmage with Saint Louis, the team headed to Aloha Stadium and blanked Waipahu, 42-0, in a JPS preseason game. The league’s regular season begins this weekend and most games are scheduled at Aloha Stadium — no spectators, please.
“Mililani has tough kids,” Lee said, referring to the club team by their high school name. “They’re going to be good this year.”
In the second scrimmage, the Crusaders got a deep look at their roster.
“We played 80-something guys. It was a good scrimmage for the kids. I was impressed with Mililani’s improvement on both sides of the ball. We had a hard time offensively moving the ball. They moved the ball well on our defense. The positive stuff is that we got to look at our young guys,” Lee said.
Lee noted that former Crusader player Silila Malepeai, uncle of former Mililani standout Vavae Malepeai, did well as one of the Trojans’ coaches.
“Rod (York) does a good job with the offense. They lost a lot of guys, too, but since the last scrimmage, they really improved,” Lee said.
Lee had already examined the scrimmage video by Sunday. Film study is a foundational ritual in the lives of Lee and his players, who study footage as often as three sessions per week.
“We really get to evaluate some of our young guys coming back. Kids are working hard and they’re learning the system. That was really good. I like some of our young guys, our receivers. We’re pretty good on the O-line, that’s our strength,” Lee said.
So is the quarterback position. Senior Connor Apo, junior AJ Bianco, sophomore Kekahi Graham and freshman ‘Oa Kamakawiwo‘ole split time.
“AJ looks good. He’s 6-4, 220. He’s going to the Elite 11. Connor, he’s looking really good. A guy who’s been with us three years and didn’t get his chance at a senior year. Kahi, he’s good, too, a left-hander. He’s going to the Elite 11, too, with the younger group,” Lee said. “ ‘Oa, the kid can spin the ball. He has a pretty good temperament.”
The 22 receivers on the spring “roster” also got reps.
“We kind of have an idea of who we have coming back,” Lee said.
The annual rite of pass league is a big question mark at this point.
“We normally start pass league in June. We’re already close to May. What’s going to happen with school kids now? It’s hard to round up kids. Somebody’s got to make a decision,” Lee said. “In August, the first week is when we start the season, so let’s make a plan. What’s going to happen if they don’t come up with a plan soon, kids are going to transfer. The mainland will play and more people will be leaving. So we need to start pass league.”
The longtime coach has long been outspoken about “kicking the can down the road” as the de facto plan for prep football in the islands.
“I hear, second hand, ‘Don’t upset the OIA. Don’t step on anybody’s toes.’ I’m not doing that. We’ve got to get this going. Somebody’s got to speak up or we’ll be in the same boat,” Lee said.
He hopes to see light at the end of the tunnel, but says that isn’t enough.
“Right now, parents ask and I have to tell them, ‘I don’t really know what’s going to happen.’ I think it’ll be the same thing as last year. A lot of kids that went away had success with colleges. That’s going to influence other kids this season,” he said.
He is not willing to wait until mid-summer to speak out.
“We’re one of three states not playing football this year. This year is done, but we have the vaccine. A lot of good things are happening. It’s just a matter of putting it together. Are the OIA and ILH going to be together (for football)? Let’s plan. I want games. Preseason games, we have to start scheduling whether we play public schools or mainland teams. Whether it’s us traveling there or them traveling here,” Lee said. “For our ADs, nothing is on the agenda.”