The state football tournament is here and it’s hard to imagine a better, more exiting way to start it than the two games Friday night.
Some people may still be looking down at this year’s new format, but so far, so good. It seems like teams are right where they belong.
Defending Division II champion Lahainaluna had to play its “home” game at War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku (easier access to the airport for fans coming from off island is the scuttlebutt reason), and they got off to a roaring start against ‘Iolani, a team it had lost to five straight times, including three times in the D-II state final.
It looked like it was going to be a rout, but ‘Iolani cranked it up in the second half and got within 8 points in the end.
With its 35-27 victory in which it didn’t score a point in the second half, Lahainaluna (10-1) moves on to play Konawaena (9-2) in the D-II state title game Nov. 18 at Aloha Stadium. The Wildcats of the Big Island won an amazing game at home — 53-50 — over previously undefeated Waipahu (10-1) on Friday night.
If this pack of teams do not belong together then who does? Lahainaluna and Konawaena have been building tight-knit programs that have had sustained success on the outer islands. And while it’s a well-known fact that they have trouble competing with the absolute iron on Oahu (teams like Saint Louis, Kahuku and Mililani), they still play a powerful brand of football at their own level.
And the best thing about it is these Neighbor Island schools are making a name for themselves. By knocking off the middle-brow Oahu teams, they’re gaining respect. And, instead of walking into Aloha Stadium in two weeks with a yawn, fans on Oahu can gear up for what is expected to be an all-out D-II battle.
Maybe, just maybe, gone are the days when the Neighbor Islands were an afterthought in football. For the early years of the state tournament, Waimea of the Kauai Interscholastic Federation made inroads by beating second-tier Oahu teams (Kailua twice and Castle once). The Menehunes also lost to Kahuku in a tight 21-7 game one year, but never got more than that proverbial yawn from Oahu fans.
As for Friday’s losers, Waipahu and ‘Iolani? Close, right? There were many who thought the Raiders didn’t belong at the lowest level. But coach Wendell Look had the final laugh on his detractors, in a sense. ‘Iolani could have won that game, but by no means could the Raiders have dominated it. ‘Iolani (4-6) is classified where it wants to be and it appears to be the right place.
Waipahu, meanwhile, went 10-0 in the regular season before succumbing to Konawaena. In the OIA D-II title game last week, the Marauders staged an amazing comeback to beat Pearl City and qualify for one of the four berths, and they also, obviously, proved to fit right in with the competition.
The ticket that gets you from the league to states is tighter now than it’s ever been and a lot harder to earn. That can only be a good thing in promoting tougher competition.
As the tournament moves ahead and the Division I teams get underway Saturday night, the stakes get higher for the Neighbor Islands.
Division I has brought to vivid life the ghost of the Neighbor Islands Football Championship that existed in the 1990s. It was more of an unofficial thing back then, more like nonleague, postseason games than a trophy game at the state level. But that’s the only place teams like Hilo, Maui, Baldwin, Kapaa, Kauai, Waimea and Waiakea could go when the regular season ended.
Now, the state D-I tournament is the outlet for them. It’s a virtual Neighbor Islands Championship, with the D-I champions of the Big Island, Kauai and Maui in the mix along with the ILH’s D-II champion. It should be noted that D-II is actually the ILH’s middle tier (in other words, the ILH D-II champ moves up to D-I for states and another team from a lower, unnamed league tier, ‘Iolani this year, goes to D-II for states).
Saturday is the night for the D-I semifinals and all eyes are on the Neighbor Islands again as Kauai (5-3) entertains Damien (9-3), and Maui (5-5) visits Hilo (8-1).
For two nights in a row (at least as far as states go) ALL action is on the Neighbor Islands. Two more ultra-close games would go a long way in ensuring that teams are, for the most part, slotted where they belong in the three tiers.
More and more, it’s becoming a true state tournament. The new format this year is not perfect, and changes are sure to be made again for next year, but it’s certainly off to an explosive start.