With the start of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu football season nearing, Kamehameha coach Abu Ma‘afala can see the light.
The ILH football schedule begins on Aug. 27 with three games. One of them pits old rivals Kamehameha and Punahou at Aloha Stadium.
“I just thank God we’re playing football next Friday,” Ma‘afala said.
A week later, Kamehameha’s ‘B’ squad, or I-AA team, will meet “Iolani, also at Aloha Stadium.
Two teams, one program. The announcement of the ILH’s schedule on Monday was enthralling for players and coaches. Just two weeks earlier, the season appeared to be in jeopardy when the DOE postponed fall sports for all public high schools.
“The ILH, (schools) statewide, these kids have been suffering. They haven’t had sports. It’s not even about state titles, per se. Just the emotional aspect. We are blessed. Coach Wendell (Look) deserves some love because he heard us out,” Ma‘afala said, referring to the ILH football coordinator. “I’ve got to give props to him. He’s in that chair, and even his counterpart in the OIA (Harold Tanaka), it hasn’t been easy for them. The thing I’m so appreciative about is he heard the concerns of the coaches here in the ILH and he was able to adjust, to benefit our kids.”
Ma‘afala also credited the OIA for allowing the ILH to move forward. The OIA and neighbor island leagues are not scheduled to begin fall sports until Sept. 27, three days after the deadline for student-athletes to become vaccinated.
“The OIA made a decision and even though they knew they would be starting a little bit later, they put the kids of the state first, too. Not necessarily the OIA kids, but they allowed us to play. In the past year-and-a-half, we’ve seen it’s very unpredictable. For them to have that kind of grace and foresight, that’s big time of them,” Ma‘afala said.
Kamehameha will have only four games, two against Punahou and two against Saint Louis, as the ILH’s Open Division teams endure a few bye weeks. With semifinal and title games, an ILH Open team could finish the season with six games. Saint Louis, playing at Bishop Gorman on Friday, could wind up with six or seven games in all.
Then, there will be choices to be made. When the ILH football season ends on Oct. 23, the OIA will be in the midst of its own schedule. The state football tournament is set for late December and early January.
“The beauty is that whoever the (ILH’s) state representative becomes, they have the choice whether they want to stay in the (state) tournament. It also frees up the other schools that won’t be going to the state tournament to play their winter seasons, or try and schedule a couple of OIA games if they can. There’s so much flexibility,” Ma‘afala said. “A minimal impact and rippling effect on the rest of the schedule.”
The ILH also has the cache of playing home games as well as neutral-site battles at Aloha Stadium. Kamehameha’s track and field are under renovation, which makes Aloha Stadium quite the alternative site.
“Aloha Stadium for us millennial and really the generation before us, the Gen Xers, that was the place. I remember when I first came to Kamehameha and even before that, I would watch my uncles play. That was the thing you do on Friday night. It’s special knowing the Pro Bowl was played there. Prep Bowl after Prep Bowl,” Ma‘afala said.
The former Hawaii defensive lineman has kept an eye on the upgrade at Clarence T.C. Ching Field. The ILH schedule has not listed a site for playoff games on Oct. 15 and 23. Hawaii is on the road Oct. 15, but hosts a game on Oct. 23.
“I’m also excited for what T.C. Ching Field and the new facility are becoming, and new generations and what they’ll get to see,” Ma‘afala said.
What he and many other football lifers have missed is the community spirit at games across the islands.
“It’s different when you play at a high school stadium. That was the beautiful part of the interleague. That’s what high school football is. Aloha Stadium is great, but having the crowd on top of you, riding on the bus to somebody else’s stadium, I got to experience that living in different states and there’s a lot to be said about that, too. It’s what the students appreciate more,” he said.
If Kamehameha, Punahou and Saint Louis continue on with a few interleague games, that’s a bonus in Ma‘afala’s perspective.
“If we only played four (ILH) games, we played against top teams and you get film. The conversation with my players and parents, they just want to get their kids on film. Something on paper. Anything past the ILH season, we will all be thankful,” he said.
The element of what used to be a junior varsity team and converting it into a prep, Division I level team is new in ILH football. With no JV football this year, those teams at Kamehameha and Saint Louis will play the league’s D-I and D-II teams.
“This was kind of on my mind for awhile. This has been a two- or three-year deal in the making. For whatever reason, we’ve got a lot of kids that don’t participate past JV, so a I-AA might help keep up their numbers and increase opportunities,” Ma‘afala said.
I-AA players cannot be promoted to the varsity roster until after the season.
“That’s the giveaway with converting the JV. It’s part of the tradeoff, but it’s not a difficult conversation because now we have 70 kids who will play,” he said.