They came from near and far to the center of the prep football universe.
Aloha Stadium is where coaches gather from around the state for a press conference before the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships kick off. With an expanded format this season, there are eight more teams (Division I), making it 20 in three classifications.
Cal Lee was there, just two days after successful surgery to remove a kidney stone. Neighbor island coaches were there, answering questions in a cavernous space near the stadium offices. Kaeo Drummondo of Hilo. Pohai Lee of Baldwin. Phillip Rapozo of Kapaa. Brad Uemoto of Konawaena. Moku Pita of Waiakea. Garrett Tihada of Lahainaluna.
I interviewed almost all of them. The video interviews will be online this week. For now, some quick takes.
>> Grateful Mules
Nolan Tokuda of Leilehua and his team are reaping the benefit of the HHSAA’s pilot program. By starting the Open Division (six teams), the D-I bracket is basically a new entity with eight entries. The pairings and seedings left some fans scratching their heads, but there are limitations to what the seeding committee could do.
“I had my fit, but at this point, we’re 4-7 and still playing football in November,” Tokuda said.
Leilehua drew the top seed in D-I, Hilo, and will fly to the Big Island.
Last weekend, the Mules didn’t know who would be on the schedule. Tokuda made an educated guess and flew to Maui. He has a scouting report on MIL champion* Baldwin, which drew the No. 4 seed.
(* The HHSAA does not recognize Baldwin as a league champion because the MIL did not have at least three teams in D-I.)
If, if, if Leilehua gets past Hilo and Baldwin advances past Mililani — the Bears and Trojans tangle at War Memorial Stadium — then the Mules would play Baldwin. If Hilo beats Leilehua, it will host the next round (semifinal) and play the Baldwin-Mililani winner.
In this eight-team format, anything goes, it seems. There’s no first-round bye. Leilehua isn’t the only team with a losing record in the tourney, but it could be one of the more explosive offensively. And if the Mules make a run to the final and win the title, that would give them a nice, even .500 mark at 7-7.
Cinderella might be wearing forest green and yellow this fall.
>> Freshman in the fire
The Hilo Vikings are at home, sorta, and have a skilled QB in the pocket, sorta. Technically, though Hilo will be at home, the game with Leilehua will be at Keaau High School, roughly 10 miles away on the road to lava country. And their QB situation has been jostled by an injury to their starter, Kaale Tiogangco. That meant freshman Kyan Miyasato was thrust onto the field.
Tiogangco, an athlete dual threat, got hurt at Honokaa midway through the season. Miyasato stepped in and has thrown six touchdowns with just three picks in five games.
“He’s not as experienced,” Drummondo said. “But he’s done a good job. We knew an injury could happen, so we prepared him for that possibility.”
Hilo will lock down defensively regardless of the offense’s production. More on that later, though. Drummond really likes his defensive unit.
>> The beat goes on
Perennial D-II state title contender Lahainaluna is more experienced this season, one year after fielding a team that might have been their youngest ever. The Lunas have been through the fires of postseason play.
TIhada scouted Waipahu, their first-round foe, on Friday at Aloha Stadium. The Marauders’ four-wide formation is similar to Baldwin, he noted, and like the Bears, he knows Waipahu would love to run the ball a lot.
“Their running back (Alfred Failauga) has speed. He’s not real big, but when he makes his cuts, he’s smooth,” Tihada said.
>> Defending Yates
Konawaena has both a top 2 seed in D-II and an opening-round bye, and that suits Uemoto just fine. The Wildcats, winner of the BIIF — they lost a close game to D-I champ Hilo early in the season — will play the Lahainaluna-Waipahu winner on Nov. 12. Julian Yates Field could be rocking with 3,000 fans or more.
“Waipahu looks the most like us in terms of what we run,” Uemoto said. “Lahainaluna is always tough.”
>> The Pendulum Effect
Rapozo’s Warriors didn’t get out of KIF play unscathed. Their last three games were tight, including a loss to Kauai.
“It’s very tough to play the same teams three times,” Rapozo said.
Kapaa was successful in preseason, dominated the early KIF season, and then…
“I think we got a little complacent,” Rapozo said.
Since then, the Warriors have become a better team, he believes. The HHSAA seeding committee agrees. Kapaa is the No. 1 seed with a bye until it faces the Damien-Waialua winner on Sept. 12 at Vidinha Stadium in Lihue.
>> Nothing to lose
Waiakea has struggled in the BIIF, but always battles. The Warriors have historically had hard times in football, with a few exceptions like Tim Lino’s era in the 1990s (and the subsequent stints of his former assistant coaches). Pita is trying to reverse the trend, and this year, after a tough start — only 22 eligible players in the opener — Waiakea won three of five games at midseason.
But here’s the hard part: QB Gehrig Octavio will miss the state-tourney game at Campbell this weekend. He is, no surprise, a baseball standout and will be on the mainland for a showcase tournament.
“We knew three months ago he committed to it,” Pita said.
The Warriors have a young QB ready to fill Octavio’s job, he added.
“Campbell is a very good team and so well-coached. Amosa and his staff are very good,” Pita said.