There was a time when Donny Ma‘a was a proud member of the Pac-Five Wolfpack football team.
He was also proud to wear the green and white of his alma mater, Mid-Pacific. In all, Ma‘a played four sports in high school, a premier athlete and a key part of Pac-Five’s Oahu Prep Bowl-infused dynasty in the early 1980s.
Mid-Pacific’s announcement this week hit hard for old-school ‘Pack players like Ma‘a and Joe Onosai. School President Paul Turnbull and Athletic Director Scott Wagner co-signed a letter that touched on a few of the reasons why MPI, a charter member, will disconnect from Pac-Five after nearly five decades as a conglomerate in several sports.
“This was a very difficult decision and we want to recognize and acknowledge the long and successful history with our connection with Pac-Five,” Wagner said. “We still do have a couple of years of participation in football and cheerleading. We want to thank all of the coaches throughout the years, and acknowledge all of the players and their dedication to the program.”
Among the reasons cited is a lower participation rate of football players from Mid-Pacific, according to Turnbull. However, there were 19 MPI players on the 2019 Pac-Five football team, the largest contribution of all of the program’s schools. That ’19 team went 6-3 in the D-II regular season, playing public-school teams from the Oahu Interscholastic Association, but was not allowed to qualify for the state tournament. An HHSAA rule requires a league to have at least three members to be eligible for a possible state berth. Pac-Five is the lone D-II football member of the private-school Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
As a football program, Pac-Five rented the field and facilities at MPI for nearly two decades, but has not been back on the campus since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. MPI has indicated that current juniors and sophomores will have the option to play for Pac-Five in wrestling, competitive cheer and football until they graduate.
Access to the field, however, is being cut off. It is a worrisome scenario for Pac-Five, which formed in 1974 when school principals from Oahu’s smaller private schools united to provide football for their athletes. The football program was named HUMMRS for a brief time, an acronym representing Hawaii Baptist, University High, Mid-Pacific, Maryknoll and Our Redeemer.
Then-Mid-Pacific Headmaster Milton DeMello then had a conversation with Don Botelho, who was hired to teach, coach and become athletic director at MPI. The Pac-Five name was created and, since then, more than a dozen schools have participated in the conglomerate for various sports. Mid-Pacific embraced the football program as its own.
By the early 1980s, the Wolfpack became a state powerhouse on the gridiron and won the Prep Bowl in ’82 and ’85.
“It’s sad because during my time, we had Coach (Tony) Sellitto at Maryknoll, Coach Bobby Au at University, and they didn’t mind sharing their athletes. They weren’t trying to specialize,” Onosai said of the legendary boys basketball coaches. “We all played multiple sports. Mid-Pac started developing their baseball players. Then us at Word of Life and St. Francis branched out. (Pac-Five) lost a lot of our bigger players, the Polynesian kids. Mid-Pac always provided our speed and quickness, more of the Asian kids who were quick and fast. We all needed each other. We started splitting apart and our program hasn’t been the same since.”
Ma‘a enjoyed Pac-Five’s status as an underdog.
“Nobody thought we would get to where we got except us and our coaches,” said Ma‘a, who now oversees security and safety at Moanalua Middle School.
He is also an athletic director at the school, which normally plays multiple sports against other district middle schools.
“Coach Don always said, ‘We can do this.’ He was the calmest guy you ever saw in your life. If he said something loud, you would be shocked. He tells you what you did wrong, he talks to you, and you don’t do it again,” Ma‘a said.
Ma‘a was a speedy safety and running back with power. He often ran behind his 240-pound fullback, Onosai. Pastor Joe Onosai was also a standout lineman at Hawaii, drafted by the Dallas Cowboys before a neck injury shortened his pro career. He later became a head coach and athletic director at Word of Life Academy, which had four scintillating seasons in Division II football. He still has relationships with former administrators and coaches.
Onosai laments the withdrawal of Mid-Pacific.
“I’m not surprised. I know for quite some time it seemed like we were always trying to figure out if Mid-Pacific was going to support us,” he said. “When Pac-Five first started, it was a bunch of small schools supporting each other. Mid-Pacific having some success, we knew at some point it would happen. It’s sad for us because using the facilities, without them there is no Pac-Five.”
Onosai met his future wife, Ann, a Mid-Pacific student, because there was a Pac-Five.
“Those of us who grew up with Pac-Five, that’s all we’ve known. My wife is a Mid-Pacific grad. She was a cheerleader and lived there as a boarding student. I owe it to Pac-Five for meeting my wife. They picked two or three cheerleaders from each school. Her father was military and stationed at Tripler, so they sent her to live on campus,” he said. “She was a senior. I was a sophomore, but I looked like I was in college. We’re blown away because we’ve been married 35 years and together 41 years.”
Ma‘a played four sports through Mid-Pacific and Pac-Five: football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. He also coached the junior varsity football team in the mid-2000s for a season. He remembers the Pac-Five assistant coaches by heart.
“Joe Francis, Tommy Ai, Jeff Okimoto, Elton Shintaku, Charley Miyashiro, Craig Roberts, Kip Botelho, Fornelia, Derek Tengan,” he said. “I think I got them all.”
Early impressions can last a lifetime. As an MPI alum, Ma‘a is hoping for the best.
“This kind of threw me for a loop. I’m kind of not surprised that they did it because the way they were trending. They wanted to be on their own for so long,” Ma‘a said. “I think they don’t want other students coming on campus. Pac-Five caters to other kids, utilizing (Mid-Pacific’s) facilities, but I think (MPI) was slowly moving away, to be more like the Punahous and ‘Iolanis.”
It still doesn’t soften the blow.
“To me, I hate for them to do this because we put so much sweat and blood into this Pac-Five program to make it go where it went,” Ma‘a said. “Now it’s crushed.”
In addition to football, Onosai played basketball and wrestled in alternating years. He also did the shot put and discus. Unlike Ma‘a, Onosai was a University High student-athlete.
The common thread for many of the Wolfpack athletes was football.
“The friendships that you make as a Pac-Five player, you don’t see each other until the following year unless you play against each other in basketball, baseball or track. We knew that we were very unique in our situation,” said Onosai, who is pastor at Destiny Christian Church. “Some people looked at it as a weakness, but we saw it as a strength to make friends with kids from other schools. Many of these friendships have lasted forever, lifetime relationships. That’s the fun part of seeing each other’s lives, see their kids get married, see each other’s grandkids. The sad part, some pass away. We had a very unique program.”
It began with Coach Botelho’s vision.
“When it started, they thought we wouldn’t have a good team. Then, they said, ‘Well, you have five or six schools to choose from.’ Coach Botelho, it was his baby, you know. He was Pac-Five,” Onosai said. “He was a Pac-Five track coach, too. He didn’t know a lot about (the discus and shot put), but he made it work and it was another excuse for us to come together and play as athletes.”
Kip Botelho was an assistant to his father, Don, during that powerhouse stretch of the 1980s. Then he took over the reins when his father stepped down as football coach.
“The original goal was to provide football for these little schools. Now, kids are going to leave if they find out there’s no football, no field of our own. We’ve been averaging 50, 60 kids a year. One year, we were in the 30s, but that was it,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best. Even if we don’t have Mid-Pacific’s field, we’re still going to try. If you go to some little park and try to simulate another team’s offense or defense using half a field with no lines on it, it’s tough.”
Pac-Five’s existence as a football program is in yellow-alert mode.
“Having to coach is tough already, but looking for fields, working out of your trunk, is a little bit different,” Onosai added. “I think they’ll be able to pool some resources, use parks at Makiki or Manoa. We did that for four years (at Word of Life). Our kids sometimes practiced on a field that was only 50 yards long and 30 yards wide.
Ma‘a still carries a torch for the team in orange and white.
“Now it’s reality. Where are we going to practice? No locker rooms. Carry everything to school. Lug your shoulder pads and gear in the car. This is a big change,” he said, adding a message to current players. “Hang in there, man. I know it’s hard, but it’s always been hard for Pac-Five. It’s always been a challenge. Just know that you have the support of the Pac-Five alums.”
Onosai sees changing times all around.
“It’s sad,” he said. “Love’s Bakery closing down and now it’s Pac-Five. It’s just not the same.”