News of the ILH board’s decision to cancel spring football spread quickly on Friday night.
“We were waiting on it, and once school ended (on Friday), we got the text that there isn’t going to be a season,” Punahou senior defensive back Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen said.
The ILH board made the decision to cancel football, judo, water polo and kayaking. Football had been postponed since fall of 2020. COVID-19 numbers have dwindled in recent weeks, and Oahu is now in Tier 3. Forty-five states have played football in 2020-21 or are scheduled to play this spring. That wasn’t enough to convince the heads of ILH schools, however.
“For me, it was always in the back of my head that they were going to cancel the season, even though the tiers went down, cases are low and other sports are starting up,” Mendiola-Jensen said. “Before the email was even sent out, Coach Leonard (Lau) texted one of our guys and told our seniors. We talked about it in our group chat. I talked to my dad and he was surprised by it.”
Mendiola-Jensen already has his future plan set after signing with UNLV last December. There are many other student-athletes, however, who are contemplating a change in scenery.
“I know there’s Cali and Washington. Oregon might start up, too. It’ll probably be good for the seniors to go up,” he said.
It was a long grind since the fall for ILH football coaches and staff.
“Unfortunate, especially for our seniors, but we totally understand the decision and we’re not surprised,” Punahou interim coach Leonard Lau said. “We’re grateful for everyone who tried their best to make it happen, especially our ILH football coordinator, Wendell Look.”
Saint Louis Coach Ron Lee had been vocal about the lack of a plan for football at the executive level statewide since it was first postponed last fall. Those decisions, however, are largely in the hands of policy makers. Two weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that at 400,000 vaccinations per month in Hawaii, organized sports and other group activities would have a reasonable shot by May.
“A lot of kids are going to Washington, Idaho, maybe Nevada. The ILH really could have showed some leadership in the state. I’m concerned now about May, June and July. Who’s going to make the call? Nobody wants to make the call. That’s what’s real disappointing,” Lee said.
Saint Louis junior quarterback AJ Bianco doesn’t plan on leaving. He has offers from Hawaii, Nebraska and Washington State.
“I think some players will (leave), especially the seniors since this is their last chance to get some film. They can only get that where there is going to be a season,” he said.
Punahou linebacker Kahanu Kia wasn’t shocked.
“I’m disappointed that we won’t have an official season with a championship and things like that, but hopefully we’ll be able to have exhibition games individually with other schools, like basketball and soccer did,” said Kia, who signed with Notre Dame.
A source close to the board noted that football in private-school programs will have the flexibility to play in a “bubble” the way other cancelled sports did, such as basketball. Saint Louis’ basketball team played a dozen exhibition games, including a school-versus-school team against Punahou on Thursday night.
“That will be a school-to-school deal, so there still may be some games put together between schools who allow it,” the source said.
Bianco had expressed some hope and optimism earlier in the week while he played hoops with the Crusaders against club teams. Saint Louis’ basketball team played one school team, Punahou (on Thursday) and also played 11 club teams in exhibitions. Other schools played each other in the past week, including Kamehameha, ‘Iolani and Hawaii Baptist.
“Hopefully, we can do what we did in basketball and still get some games in,” Bianco said.
Kamehameha offensive lineman Austyn Kauhi signed with Syracuse, but is still planning to play in exhibition games if they are scheduled.
“I just feel bad for the younger guys that have a lot to prove to these college coaches that overlook Hawaii. There’s so much talent across the islands and so many people that could make it big not just in the NFL, but in the MLB, UFC and other professional organizations,” Kauhi said.
Kauhi doesn’t expect to play in the exhibition games.
“We’ll see how it plays out, but most likely not,” he said.
At Punahou and other private schools, that means the possibility of exhibition play in a split-squad format. Mendiola-Jensen and other players who have signed with universities may consider opting out at this point, just a few months before college programs begin summer training.
“We’re still going to be practicing and getting ready. Staying in shape. We’ll schedule our own games, if anything. That sounds good to me, but for me, I’m not too sure. I don’t really want to risk getting hurt, but I want to be on the field one more time before we head out in separate directions,” he said. “I think the seniors that need opportunities to get recruited, but also seniors who aren’t going on to the next level, this is their last hurrah. A chance to make memories with guys they grew up playing with. I’m going to miss playing with these guys. I’ve known most of these guys since I was little, playing basketball or football together. We’re going to keep in touch through our lives.”