Kena Heffernan grew up in Hauula, attended Punahou and played linebacker and running back for a Buffanblu team that also featured defensive lineman Nate Kia.
The two are more than just 1992 graduates of Punahou. They are also first-year head coaches in the ILH. Kia was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at their alma mater. Heffernan faces the challenge of keeping Pac-Five’s football program alive.
“We have a small team. Our guys are hungry and they really want to play. With all that they’ve gone through in their very short football careers, there’s no growth without hardship. These kids have suffered enough, so their growth has been an astronomical amount. I wish for them to do themselves proud and play like they do at practice,” Heffernan said.
In ’19, the Wolfpack went 6-3 in Division II interleague play, but didn’t have an opportunity to play in the state tourney. Since then, they’ve lost their practice field at Mid-Pacific, a host of veteran assistant coaches departed to Castle, and Kip Botelho is no longer the head coach. Botelho was head coach for 17 seasons.
A handful of players from the ’19 squad are part of a roster of 34 players. They began preseason working out at Mother Waldron Park in Kakaako. Now, they practice at Manoa Valley District Park. Heffernan, athletic director at Pacific Buddhist Academy, is optimistic and emphasizing an all-for-one mindset.
“They want it to be about the team. We’ve got to do it for each other,” he said. “It’s not about singling out players. We just pull these guys up, never above or below. Just be by their side.”
The program was close to extinction at one point during the pandemic. Some players transferred out. Pac-Five hosted a football clinic that proved to be a turning point.
“That was in May. We had a lot of outreach. One thing about this team that has really stood out is they have a lot of gratitude. They’re appreciative for just any little thing. These kids have suffered enough, so their potential for growth is through the roof,” Heffernan said.
“Wins and losses, we want to win, but that’s not as important as staying together. Most of them will be playing for the first time in a game, for the first time in Aloha Stadium. Having them have the experience to do that together, that’s the takeaway.”
If that sounds like Pac-Five won’t be competitive, not so fast.
“I’m downplaying, but there’s a lot of special kids on this team,” Heffernan said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
The Wolfpack scrimmaged Kamehameha’s I-AA (JV) team on Saturday.
“It was a controlled scrimmage. I’ve got to say I loved that we were able to control the tempo. These Varsity II teams are absolutely legit, coached well, in great shape,” Heffernan said. “Coach Wade (Inn), nothing but professional, nothing but aloha from his staff. Coach Reggie (Torres) and them were fantastic hosts. We came away with a lot of mistakes, obviously, especially at the end of the game. These guys who never played before, never even played flag, tried out for fun, they say they can’t wait for the next game. For us, I think it’ll be a good fit.”
In ’92, Heffernan and Kia were co-captains at Punahou. They later coached the Metro Tigers youth team. Heffernan is in his first season with Pac-Five as a football coach and is also a math teacher at PBA.
“Many said it was very close. When you add on a number of different factors with Pac-Five and COVID, it wiped out quite a bit of sports. Seeing young men and women not being able to train, this is a good opportunity as long as we can do it safely,” Heffernan said. “There’s a number of kids who have stepped up through practice, even kids who have just come out. It’s about fundamentals and showing them small steps and forward rolls. We’ll walk away smiling and that’s the main thing we want these kids to go back on.”
Heffernan’s uncle, Tommy, was still coaching at Kahuku before he passed away in 2018.
“He was my dad’s older brother. He and auntie used to cut my hair. He is the biggest reason I went to Punahou. Uncle Tommy took me and my two cousins to take the test at Punahou. Without him, I wouldn’t have gone there,” Heffernan recalled. “His son (Tommy Heffernan Jr.) is the strength and conditioning coach at UH. We used to live four, five houses away from each other. We had to clean yard, scissors cutting the grass every single time we passed the house. There’s always laughs, jokes and love.”
Like many coaches, Heffernan won’t be totally surprised by anything. Maybe there is a full season. Maybe not. Maybe ILH teams play some interleague games with the OIA. Maybe not.
“October is so far away. September is so far away. I’m just trying to be grateful for what we have right now. If we do end next week or Thursday, I’m glad I was able to practice with the kids. We’ve all been talking with each other especially in light with COVID — family members and coaches. We’re just happy to have another day together,” Heffernan said. “That’s where it’s at. I do hope everything goes well and numbers drop down, that the OIA has an opportunity to play. I really want those other leagues to have their kids have the opportunity.”