(Full preview of football teams in the OIA White.)
Smaller schools like Kalaheo can endure all the challenges of academic issues and low turnout numbers.
Yet, when August comes around, things change in a hurry. Though the Mustangs were so few back in the offseason that they had to cancel a game at Lahainaluna, they could ascend and compete for the title in the Oahu Interscholastic Association White (Division II) Conference.
“Waipahu’s going to be tough. Pearl City and McKinley are tough. Kaimuki. There are some tough challenges,” Kalaheo coach Chris Mellor said. “But I like our team. I think we can win it.”
In a division where playoff berths are rarely settled before the final few weeks, programs with one-dimensional aspects can battle the best. It’s all part of the beauty of classification, even though enrollment is still not part of the criteria. With last year’s unbeaten champ, Moanalua, promoted to the Red Conference, the White Conference is very much up for grabs.
The biggest question mark is Nanakuli, which forfeited a nonconference game two weeks ago against Waianae.
Here’s a look at the conference.
Coach: Kealoha Wengler
Last year: 3-6 (3-5 OIA White)
On paper: Ten returning starters may seem like a lot for some teams. For Anuenue, it’s plenty. Though Na Koa have just 24 on the roster — a few are not yet eligible — they’ve practiced with less than 20 for much of the summer. Yet, those 10 returning starters are mostly two-way players, as well as special teams performers.
The Double Wing offense they adopted from now-defunct Word of Life has given the team its best chance to stay with deeper teams.
“We want to shorten the game. We want to stay healthy,” Wengler said of a program that once featured a run-and-shoot offense.
Mahuka Cullen (5-7, 155) is the traffic cop in the middle of Anuenue’s fake handoffs and tosses. Ikaika Gante (5-8, 160) returns as the key running back, often following Kamea Kahiapo (6-0, 235), who is the fullback when he’s not at one of the offensive tackle spots. Former lineman Makamae Otani-Wengler (5-8, 200) has made the transition to running back.
Three returning starters on the line are center Wili‘oho Ka‘awa (5-9, 275), right guard La‘amaikahiki Kamai (5-8, 240) and right tackle Iokepa Waiwaiola (5-9, 270).
Left tackle Olino Kaleopa‘a (5-9, 280) is another wide body inside.
Imaikalani Keama (6-2, 235) is vital at tight end and defensive end.
“He can catch, kick, do everything,” Wengler said.
Their 4-4 base defense features inside linebackers Ka‘awa and Otani-Wengler.
Skinny: Na Koa have been depleted, but played Kamehameha last week, losing 35-8. This week, five players have the flu and Wengler contemplated the possibility of forfeiting the game before ultimately deciding to play.
X factor: When Anuenue is healthy, the Double Wing is sometimes methodically magnificent. Staying away from injuries is a top priority, Wengler said.
Coach: Clint Oniyama
Last year: 2-7 (2-5 OIA Red)
On paper: Running back/linebacker Chester Sua (Washington State) leads a talented group that has simply lacked enough depth to stay with the division’s powerhouses. Johnnie Tuitele and Justice Sarcedo, both two-way starters, give quarterback Nahoa Spencer able targets.
Siosi Uhatafe, Maika Moala and John Kim are mainstays on the offensive and defensive lines.
Skinny: Friday’s loss at Mililani was a sampling of how tough the Bulldogs are, and how teams with more numbers can wear them down. Mililani led 14-6 at the half before winning 34-6.
X factor: Oniyama, an ‘Iolani graduate, brings a cerebral approach as his second season at Kaimuki begins. If the ‘Dogs can adopt the same kind of discipline that ‘Iolani possesses, they could surprise in the loaded Red East.
Coach: Chris Mellor
Last year: 6-4 (5-4 OIA White)
On paper: Jesse Carney (5-10, 180) leaves Mellor in awe sometimes.
“He’s got uncanny balance, the greatest balance I’ve ever seen,” the coach said of Carney, who also starts at outside linebacker. “He’s really strong for 180 pounds.”
Though Kalaheo had only 15 players for spring ball, numbers have increased and there are 34 on the field.
“I knew we had a real good core. This is one of the best teams I’ve ever had,” he said.
Quarterback Justin Pagan (5-10, 190) also drew high praise.
“He’s probably the best quarterback I’ve had. Cody (vonAppen) had a real good arm and Phil (Tauai) ran the veer very well. Justin has both the arm and the speed.”
Pagan, a standout at safety, is one of six two-way starters. Left tackle/outside linebacker Kainoa Lauriano (5-10, 190) and right tackle/defensive end Toa Fonoimoana (5-11, 220) will rarely see the sideline.
Skinny: Quincy Mason (5-11, 195) moved from right tackle to tight end this season.
“He’s good good hands and speed,” Mellor noted.
Left guard/nose guard Sua Atanoa (5-10, 235) is one of six starting sophomores.
X factor: The core of 15 kept this program alive. As long as they take care of academics, the Mustangs could surprise.
Coach: Greg Taguchi
Last year: 0-8 (0-7 OIA White)
On paper: The senior class has been in Taguchi’s system since he returned in 2008 and could be primed to put all the pieces together for a competitive season. The Michael Sayas is part of a solid corp of pass-catchers, while Watkins Kato could be pushed by transfer Kaau Kuia (Aiea) for playing time at quarterback.
Kuia (6-2, 210) is bigger than most of Kalani’s linemen, but has experience in the run-and-shoot offense and will also see time on defense.
Right guard/defensive tackle Samuela Tupou (6-1, 285) and right tackle/defensive end Leighton Nino (6-0. 200) anchor the offensive and defensive lines.
Skinny: The arrival of former Kaiser, Saint Louis and UH coach Ron Lee is a big plus. Lee has shared his vast experience and knowledge with Taguchi for years. His effect could be immediate, but the gain for Kalani should be long-term.
X factor: The arrival of Kuia and his younger brother, Keano (WR/DB) are valuable additions.
Coach: Joseph Cho
Last year: 1-6 (1-5 OIA Red)
On paper: MacKenzie Tolofau, a transfer from Word of Life, bolsters a mammoth offensive line that includes left tackle Kamalani Moeava and left guard Jordan Malaga. Speedy Solomon Dixon, who has committed to Idaho, is a dual threat at cornerback and wideout.
Skinny: Cho’s 38 seasons of experience in Oregon will be valuable. He is installing a more run-oriented attack that makes use of Dixon and Jason Guan as fly/jet men in motion (pre-snap). Will Roman and Alex Ironside are battling for the starting quarterback role.
The Tigers number 40-plus, but are not deep at the interior positions. That makes the new offense a more pragmatic solution; running the ball means running the clock, shortening the game and saving their legs.
X factor: Freshman linebacker Mathias Iafeta could emerge as a key ingredient.
Coach: Skip Lopes
Last year: 0-7 (0-6 OIA Red)
On paper: With one of the smallest enrollments in the OIA, Nanakuli is back in Division II after two long seasons in the rough Red West. Coach Lopes has 26 players on the roster, a difficult number to play with at the D-I level.
The Golden Hawks have a mix of experienced returnees and first-time starters like quarterback Joseph Shelton (6-3, 185), a sophomore who also plays basketball.
“He’s got skills, but he’s going to need composure,” Lopes said. “He can be a big asset.”
Nathan Auelua-Naki (6-0, 200) doubles at running back and middle linebacker, and Clyton Atualevao (5-11, 190) is at running back and outside linebacker. Kenson Paris (6-3, 210) plays defensive end and wide receiver.
Alex Viliamu (5-10, 300) is a right tackle and defensive tackle.
Skinny: Lopes is old school all the way. His I-formation offense may be the only one in the Red West. In the East, only Kailua used it regularly in recent years. When executed properly, it can be a punishing offense.
X factor: The team had just 12 or so available players for a nonconference game with Waianae two weeks ago, which led to a cancellation. Five of those players were sidelined by injury. The new influx of players is largely due to academic eligibility, but the Golden Hawks will need to avoid any losses on the field and in the classroom to have a shot at the playoffs.
“They believe they can do it,” Lopes said. “But they’re only going as far as they go in the classroom.”
Coach: Kai Kamaka
Last year: 3-6 (3-5 OIA White)
On paper: A wealth of experience — 17 returning starters — is yielding great results so far. A 14-7 nonconference upset win over Kapolei had the Chargers on Cloud Nine during the past week. What they lack in offensive firepower, the Chargers have in defensive pursuit and solid tackling.
Two-time state wrestling champion Ray Cooper and Chayse Tagalog (6-0, 200) lead a stout pack of linebackers, while linebacker-turned-safety Cyrus Coen (6-0, 205) will have more freedom to make plays in a run-heavy conference.
Former Saint Louis defensive tackle Michael Feao (6-1, 250) is a major presence in the trenches.
Skinny: Cooper and Coen are also the team’s best running backs. Without a consistent passing attack, the Chargers are loading up defensively. Low-scoring games — and wins — could become the norm.
X factor: Wide receiver Adrian Hall and slotback Sean Lopez. If Pearl City can materialize some form of a passing game, the defense won’t have to carry the entire burden.
Coach: Lincoln Barit
Last year: 2-7 (2-6 OIA White)
On paper: Midway through last season, the Bulldogs seemed on the verge of turning the corner. Early losses to Konawaena and Kaiser showed promise, then came wins over Anuenue and Kalani. However, they lost the final five games and were out of the playoffs.
The good news is that a senior-heavy class brings plenty of experience back. Middle linebacker Micah Hatchie is flanked by Rudy Galapia and Christian Whittaker to give Barit the kind of Bulldog defense he likes.
Cornerback/safety Matt Abad is one of the returnees to the secondary. Nati Fuatiga is a load at nose guard, but will also provide able blocking as a fullback.
Barit’s decision to use Fuatiga in that role
Skinny: They’re not as wide open an offense as they were a few years ago when Caleb Forte (San Bernadino JC) was under center, but Barit’s approach will give his defense a chance to get more rest. Lower scores will be a good thing at Tosh Nakasone Field this fall.
X factor: This style of football — think Baltimore Ravens before Joe Flacco — is as blue collar as it gets as long as the Bulldogs block, block, block.
Coach: Sean Saturnio
Last year: 3-5 (1-5 OIA Red)
On paper: The Marauders were competitive in Division I, but numbers and formulas being what they are in the OIA, the program is back in D-II. Running back Victor Moananu (126 yards per game) returns and is primed for another productive, if different, kind of season.
Quarterback Mark Bumanglag is putting the ball in the air far more so far, including 40 attempts in a recent scrimmage. His targets include Brysen Kaseli and even Moananu (5-8, 190), whose position as a sophomore two seasons ago was slotback.
Offensive lineman Michael Angasay (5-9, 262) is a bull who was an All-State third-team pick last season. Tupe Taito is another key to the offensive line.
Skinny: The linebacking corps has potential with Preston Guevara and sophomore Wes Nagaseu. Mason Corpuz-Slade mans the secondary at safety.
X factor: Waipahu’s spread option attack, with ties to Paul Johnson’s plays at Navy, and now Georgia Tech, was difficult enough to defend without an accent on the pass. Combing the two elements is often more difficult than easy, so this entertaining experiment bears watching.
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser