LAS VEGAS — Temperatures had cooled to the 80s in sultry Las Vegas, but on this day, not so cool.
The thermometer read 108 as players jogged onto the field at Bishop Gorman on Monday afternoon. It was 2:30 p.m., time for practice, Time to prep for the first game of the season against Hawaii powerhouse Saint Louis on Aug. 20. The Gaels were in stations, Bob Marley roaring through the sound system, and all was well — unless you were a visitor walking the sidewalk, that boiling-hot sidewalk, and chatting with an assistant coach.
Phil Faoa knows Saint Louis well. The 1992 Crusader graduate is in his second season on the staff at Bishop Gorman. Retired from the Hawaii National Guard, he is essentially living his second life in a new world. Locally, he is also known as the director and 14U coach of Vegas Strong, one of the country’s top club programs. His three sons grew up in the valley of Las Vegas, and Vegas Strong is also the year-round squad that includes top players from nearby Liberty and Desert Pines. Often, the athletes have roots or ties to Hawaii, just like Faoa.
“We coach them all up,” he said, noting the play of Champ Kapanui, son of former Roosevelt and University of Hawaii football player Chad Kapanui.
The latter has been an assistant coach at Liberty for years, and also coaches the girls basketball team.
At Bishop Gorman, however, the tracks go further back. They include former Saint Louis intermediate man-child Haskell Garrett. Long before Garrett starred at Ohio State, he transferred from Saint Louis to Bishop Gorman. At Kalaepohaku, he was a giant slotback on offense, juking defenders half his size and outsprinting them to paydirt. On defense, his true calling at defensive end was mind-boggling, at least on a few semi-ancient YouTube videos.
This fall, the cast of contributors at Bishop Gorman who have Hawaii ties is 11 deep and would form the nucleus for any island juggernaut.
>> OL Romeo Tiumalu, Sr. Formerly of Ewa Beach Sabers
>> OL Zack Yamauchi, Jr. Laie
>> OL Seuseu Jr Alofaituli, Fr. Ewa. Beach Sabers
>> OL Douglas Utu, Fr. Kalihi. Offers: Miami, BYU, Washington State, UNLV)
>> QB Micah Alejado, So. Ewa Beach Sabers
>> RB Micah Kaapana, So. Ewa Beach Sabers
>> DL Noa Yamauchi, Sr. Laie
>> DL Sione Motuapuaka, Fr. Aiea
>> LB Palaie Faoa, Jr. Ewa Beach Sabers. Offers: Arizona, Colorado, Utah State, UNLV)
>> S Shaz Lopes, Sr. Ewa Beach Sabers
>> S Kodi DeCambra, Jr. Kapolei. Offers: Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State, UNLV)
Faoa has nurtured the transition from youth sports to elite prep-level athletics for many athletes. He formed Game Changers Sports Academy to develop them in academics and training. Like much of the nation, reclassification is a key tool to success at his academy. So has the development of players at Vegas Strong.
“I know last year when Hawaii stopped, we were still going with youth football. A lot of these families that move up, that’s the opportunity they’re looking for and they’re still moving up here. A lot of the families that are relocating from Hawaii to Las Vegas,” Faoa said. “I just think the development at our academy, they lift like they’re in high school already. For the kids like SJ, a kid named Maddox (Valoaga), and Sione, these are all incoming freshmen on the varsity that have the opportunity to start. That was because of what happened in eighth grade. We feel if you’re able trust the process and go through it, by the time you reach up to ninth grade, you’re not just on the varsity. You actually have a chance to start.”
Competing for college scholarships isn’t new, but reclassifying may be at a new threshold across the country.
“Back at home, once you reach 4 or 5, OK you’re about to start school now. Nobody’s babysitting you, but that’s what they do out here on the mainland. They don’t start the kid until 5 or 6. But a lot of them are reclassifying now (on Oahu) at OLPH, St. Elizabeth, St. Patrick. Really, it’s for maturity, that’s the whole key. Physically, mentally,” Faoa said. “Here’s the thing. It’s in the rules of the high school leagues.”
Even without a much-desired growth spurt, Faoa believes the delay is worthwhile.
“Let’s say you don’t grow, but I promise you this, mentally, you’ll have an advantage. Being physically more fit for competing at the highest level,” he said.
Faoa sees a parallel between Hawaii and Nevada, between local talent and the college program in town. Some Bishop Gorman players may prefer to stay nearby so family and friends can watch home games, but by and large, going away to Oregon or Alabama is the norm.
“I think with UNLV, they finally started to initiate that bridge. They invited around 30 of our kids that came from our Game Changers program, but really most of them are here at Gorman. They ended up offering some of the kids out there,” Faoa said. “I’m saying, that connection, you know? Not just give them offers. I’m not saying it’s easy, but doing your own backyard first, especially here at Bishop Gorman, and schools like Liberty, there’s a lot of talent. If UNLV is able to capture kids from home first, I think that’s the only way you’re going to be able go outside and get the kid. If you can’t (bring in) the kids from Vegas, it’s going to be tough for you to even go get the kids from Cali or anywhere else. I understand, too, that a lot has to do with facilities and stuff like that, but you’re going to have to start somewhere. It’s about closing the gap. I think we did that when we took some of the kids.”
The youth leagues that are thriving today in Clark County also have ties to Hawaii.
“It’s key. You’ve got everything going on now here. We’re in tackle (youth league) right now. We’re actually JPS NYFL. There’s just two leagues out here, JPS NYFL and NYS. We were able to connect with Robert Faleafine (of JPS Oahu) and we were able to do the out here in Las Vegas. It’s critical. The youth program, a lot of people didn’t believe in it, but I’m sure they do now. If you look at the rosters now, most of those kids are from those youth programs.”
In the time it takes to walk the length of the field along the bleachers at Bishop Gorman’s orange-accented field, an iPhone will plead for mercy while overheating under the sun. The campus is off the beaten path of the Strip and even nearby Spring Valley. Henderson is a wide expanse that covers what would be considered the Leeward Coast or Central Oahu combined. One phone map locates Henderson roughly 17 miles southeast of downtown Las Vegas. But head 20 miles directly south, past McCarran Airport, and Henderson is there, too. Technically, the campus is in Summerlin.
Bishop Gorman is home to all those near and all those far away. There are a double-digit number of players with island origins on the roster. Among them is starting quarterback Micah Alejado, whose family moved from Ewa Beach before he started high school. In fact, the connection between the Ewa Beach Sabers of the JPS Oahu football league and Bishop Gorman is astounding.
“These kids grew up in Hawaii. They know everything about Saint Louis. The success at Saint Louis. To be honest, these kids all wanted to go to Saint Louis. Them growing up, Saint Louis was the key. Saint Louis is the standard,” Faoa said.
So why the leap, flying 2,700-plus miles and planting roots in the desert, rather than make a 20-mile trip from Ewa Beach to Kalaepohaku? There may be more Division I college talent from Ewa Beach at Bishop Gorman than Campbell, the district school.
The reasons are simple, of course. Faoa scans the field as players warm up, break into pods and behave as if the temperature was more like 75 degrees than near 110. One player is committed to Stanford. Another, running a fade route, has an offer from Alabama. A transfer from Pittsburg, Calif., has a shot at playing time as a running back. He is somewhere in the vicinity of 6 feet, 2 inches and 230 pounds.
“Micah came up two years ago and attended Game Changers Sports Academy. He played for Vegas Strong for a whole year. We finally beat the Ducks, the OG Ducks (Los Angeles). That’s the school that feeds Bosco and Mater Dei,” Faoa said. “Micah was one of the Ewa Beach Sabers. He won the job last year during COVID as a freshman.”
The Gaels, essentially, have a pipeline to Hawaii talent like no other program outside the islands. When Saint Louis coach Ron Lee says Hawaii is losing a lot of talent to the mainland, the pipeline is probably part of that equation.
“That is a concern. You still have people, coaches who stepped up during the pandemic. Coach Mose (Tuia of MBC Athletics) out there on the west side. You still got coach Ron and coach Steely (Malepeai) at Mililani (Mill Vill Trojans). Coach Whitley Fehoko, who does his program (Trench Dawgz). A lot of these coaches were able to step up and at least do a club team and still travel. Having that, some those kids still did leave Saint Louis and other schools.”
The coaching staff has more Hawaii connections. The defensive coordinator is former Hawaii standout Chris Brown.
But moving across the ocean to a desert — the pros and cons are always there. Groceries are fairly cheaper, particularly produce. Meat? A package of Jimmy Dean bacon goes for $4 on sale at Albertson’s in downtown Las Vegas. It is on sale at the Waialae Longs Drugs, two for $7. A can of Spam goes for nearly $4 at Albertson’s. In Hawaii it is normally around $2.50. Gasoline is more expensive in most parts of Clark County than it is in Honolulu.
The American Dream, however, is still more readily available in Las Vegas, where home ownership is reachable for most families. On Oahu, the median price for a modest, single-family home is approaching $1 million. In Clark County, the median price is $360,000.
If there is a talented football player within the reach of Bishop Gorman, he will likely have an opportunity. Even non-athletes can imagine the possibilities while strolling through a weight room that is roughly 10,000 square feet, lined from wall to wall with state-of-the-art machines. Coach Brown’s office, in the back, has a display of every helmet known to Gaels football fans from chrome to all-white to black and silver to metallic royal blue to metallic orange.
Through the hallway leading to the back of the facility, ice-bath whirlpools and a large trainer’s room. Also, a synthetic 60-yard stretch of track, just for those days when it’s too elemental outside for peak, timed (or untimed) sprints. The film room is a mini theater, more like a lecture hall with whiteboards and a remote-controlled big screen. Somehow, in the weight room facility, the Gaels have a golf cart plain as day, not blinged out at all.
This is no high school program. This is premier football packaged for the prep level. That’s why the Gaels are on a mission. The loss to a talented Liberty squad in the state final of 2019 left a lingering, sour aftertaste. Couple that with a postponed, shortened 2021 spring season and the entire program is in hyperactive mode. A quiet, kick-tail vibe from top to bottom.
“That was a good Liberty team. Especially with a lot of the coaches and players out there. This year, we’re young,” Faoa said. “A lot of our offensive key players are four-star, five-star. We’ve got a balanced attack, still working, still trying to get everything together and get better every day.”
Bishop Gorman is ranked No. 13 nationally by MaxPreps. The recruiting has been sensational. The work ethic doesn’t stop. Every position is loaded and deep. Saint Louis? At No. 30, the four-time Hawaii Open Division state champions have reestablished a dynasty in the islands. Coach Lee said recently that the program is rebuilding after losing immense talent to graduation over the past two years. The Crusaders, though, will not skip a beat. Neither will the Gaels as “Buffalo Soldier” pumps through the stadium. There is no joking around. No walking. A station workout ends and they sprint to the next one.
There isn’t even a long string of sideline water fountains, no ice-cold water mist machines. It’s as old school as imaginable in a football cathedral. Saint Louis has its synthetic turf field and a few metal bleachers, and the weight room built in recent years is air-conditioned, a step up from the now-gone weight room — T.C. Ching Gymnasium stands in its place now.
Though there is, really, no comparison when it comes to facilities. Saint Louis has something that has become more rare in the fickle new decade of commercialized athletics: continuity. As long as tradition and coaching matter, the Crusaders will be willing to travel and play the best in the nation. Lee had his eyes on a matchup with reigning national champion Mater Dei, but one look at the ledger had him turning from Bellflower, Calif., to the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nev. The longtime coach had no interest in losing money by going to Cali for a Mater Dei matchup. Bishop Gorman offers a chance to break even, or somewhere in that locale.
The showdown in the desert is little more than two weeks away.
“You know what? It’s a machine. Saint Louis is always going to be Saint Louis, especially with coach Ron, coach Cal (Lee), coach Tupu (Alualu), coach Wes (Tufaga). The kids come in, they put ‘em right there and they do it,” Faoa said. “Some of those kids, I coached at Ewa Beach Sabers, too. I know Tasi (Tadio), one of the linebackers out there. Great kids, great athletes. You see their line, oh my gosh. You see Devon (Tauaefa), he’s a wide receiver out there. What they’re teaching out there is paramount.”
Faoa has viewed footage from the recent Saint Louis-Mililani scrimmage.
“I watched the last clip. Honestly, a lot of times when I look at that, I don’t do all the scouting anyway. I just look at all the kids I used to coach. All the kids at Mililani that I used coach, you know? It’s exciting for me to see all the kids at Mililani that used to play for Ewa Beach Sabers,” Faoa said. “That program has produced a lot. I do know with Pastor Tuli (Amosa) and them, Galu (Tagovailoa) and them, what we started out there, and Punahou, too. John-Keawe (Sagapolutele), who’s a quarterback there. When I watch all these scrimmages, that’s what I’m looking for, all my nephews out there.”
The ascension of talent, particularly at skill positions, is what separates that Ewa Beach Sabers program from many other Hawaii youth football programs. So many of their original core of coaches, now gone.
“Yep, the only ones still there are Pastor Tuli and Pastor Sai (Amosa), who are still holding that program there. At the end of the day, it’s the same motto. They’re raising champions. Whoever comes in, that’s who they’re going to coach up,” Faoa said.
The influx of Hawaii talent, particularly the Ewa Beach program, is a part of the confluence that will occur on Aug. 20. Faoa doesn’t want to overstate the impact.
“Saint Louis, Bishop Gorman, it’s a brand already. It’s the school, the coaching staff. We’ve got coach Browner and coach Chris Brown, our DC out there, played at the University of Hawaii and in the NFL. They played at the highest levels. For me, having these Ewa Beach Sabers kids, kids from Hawaii play under the Vegas Strong program, at that point, we’re already building everything together and Bishop Gorman is able to just pick and choose and see who they want. And Liberty.”
On the field, it’ll be a chance for Gaels from 76 South (Ewa Beach) to experience Crusader football. It’ll just be in a different plane of the universe than they had grown up thinking of. The one song missing from the Bob Marley medley at Bishop Gorman’s field on Monday afternoon?