The strangest year of high school athletics could not be more of a mystery for Punahou’s interim head football coach, Leonard Lau.
The longtime assistant was the offensive coordinator for the past two seasons as Punahou challenged for the Interscholastic League of Honolulu title. The Buffanblu were 10-2 last year, losing only to national powerhouse Saint Louis. When the school removed veteran coach and assistant athletic director Kale Ane, at least for the time being, during its investigation into alleged improprieties involving a former girls basketball assistant coach, Lau became the choice to lead the football program.
The state shut down during the COVID-19 global outbreak, leaving all programs without a spring football session, without summer training. The football season is scheduled to begin on Aug. 19, but that is also up in the air as officials statewide determine a new game plan with Hawaii’s case numbers on the rise in recent weeks.
“These are unprecedented times, for sure. But there are a bunch of positives. Our players’ and staff’s ability to stay positive and motivated during these times have been encouraging,” Lau said on Wednesday. “Everyone has been doing their best to keep themselves and families safe. No one has been grumbling, just staying positive and ready.”
The long break has been a boon of sorts for some Buffanblu football players. From linebacker Kahanu Kia to cornerback Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen to wide receiver Christopher Paige to offensive lineman Alema Moeava to defensive end Tevarua Tafiti, college scholarship offers have been racking up.
“Another positive has been the many college opportunities our players have been given during this time. Higher education opportunities have always been the priority for our student-athletes here at Punahou,” Lau added.
Lau played football at the University of Hawaii and has taught at Dole Middle School for 26 years. The correlation between actual classroom attendance and athletics is at the forefront of key decisions for educators at the prep level.
“If we do get the opportunity to go back, the first thing I’m looking forward to is seeing all our players in person. I haven’t seen them physically since school let out in March due to the virus,” he said. “Just being around them will be joy. We have some great players returning for sure. What I’m most excited about is our senior leadership coming back. A lot of them have been together for years. They have all played some great football for our program, but their leadership will be the difference if we want to achieve our goals this season.”
Six states have postponed football to the winter and spring seasons on the mainland. Others are considering a similar move. Some states are planning to take the field as scheduled in a few weeks.
“If the state (of Hawaii) decides to move the season to spring, we’ll support it because they are doing it for the health and safety for our players, coaches and staff. At Punahou, our students’ safety and well-being are our top priority,” Lau said. “The benefits of a spring season might be the opportunity to know more about the virus, better preparation and maybe return to playing football in a normal way. But we will remain patient until we receive guidance from our state, league and school.”
Two years after graduating from Hawaii, Lau began coaching in 1992 at Kamehameha under then-football coach Blane Gaison. Prior to that, he played at Saint Louis.
“I learned a lot about the game from Coach Cal Lee and Coach Ron Lee. Back in the mid-1980s, I think we were ahead of our time as far as what we were doing on offense. We probably had four pass plays and three run plays. We ran those plays over and over in practice,” Lau recalled. “Repetition was the key to understand all our reads and adjustments against the different coverages we saw. A lot of the concepts I still use today as a coach.”
At UH, Lau played under Bob Wagner from ’86 to ’90.
“We won a lot of games back then in the old WAC. My junior year, we went 9-3 and my senior year, we went 9-2-1 and played Hawaii’s first-ever bowl game against Michigan State. Some of the best times of my life!”
Wagner, now retired and living on the Big Island, was a stickler.
“I learned a lot from Coach Wags. Paying attention to details was huge, like being on time, being responsible, being a good teammate and person, leadership, attitude and effort, selflessness and just doing your job. Also, what it means to be a husband, father and community contributor. These values I still live by today,” Lau said.
He points to several more prominent coaches as his coaching role models.
“Paul Johnson, Buzzy Preston, Kale Ane, Blane Gaison, Kenny Niumatalolo, Jeff Monken and Vince Passas. They have influenced me as a person or as a coach,” Lau said.
Lau and wife Daina have three children, including two prominent athletes. Son Ezekiel is a world-class surfer, and daughter Sarah is a soccer standout who was inducted into the 2015 Hall of Honor. Both attended Kamehameha. Sarah played at Hawaii, while younger sister Jordan is already committed to play soccer at West Point (Army).
His current staff at Punahou will include alum Keola Cheng as offensive coordinator.
“The last two seasons, he and I worked together in coordinating the offense. I’ll still be involved on what we do on offense,” Lau said.
The defensive coordinator will be Nate Kia.
“He has a great understanding and knowledge of our defense. His leadership will be valuable in that side of the ball,” Lau said. “We are happy that Punahou Aina remains as our special teams coordinator.”
No other changes are expected to the staff, one of the deepest and most experienced for the past decade-plus.
“We just concluded our weekly virtual, non-mandatory team meetings last Friday. We met once a week on Fridays for 20 minutes,” Lau noted. “Just to check in and say, ‘Hi,’ and make sure everyone was doing well. Depending on what happens regarding our return to play plan, we could resume virtual meetings in some capacity.”
For months, the question mark has lingered. It is the new reality.
“Punahou’s return to athletics plan mirrors the school’s return plan. We are operating under a four-tiered color code system depending on the level of risk,” Lau said. “Under one of the colored tiers is a hybrid schedule for students.”