Here, in view of Diamond Crater, is some breathing room for the Kaimuki Bulldogs.
Playing with as few as 23 players in the 2018 season, Kaimuki managed to qualify for the state football tournament. The Bulldogs won at Kamehameha-Hawaii, then lost in a close battle against Kapaa at Vidinha Stadium in Lihue. Their All-State two-way lineman, Sama Paama, suffered a knee injury on Kaimuki’s final offensive play.
Had Kaimuki won that Division II semifinal, there would’ve been a title matchup with perennial powerhouse Lahainaluna the following week. One injury resulted in the loss of two starting positions, as well as a key role on special teams. Five injuries at a small program have a massive impact that isn’t quite felt the same way at a large school. Numbers matter for a small school and a small football program, which is why the news that Kaimuki will not have to move up to D-I is a positive for David Tautofi’s program.
Tautofi, who grew up in Palolo Valley, graduated from Kaimuki and UCLA, chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Friday.
HPW: There might not be more than a handful of football programs that have competed as well as Kaimuki when it comes to small enrollment. Is it around 850 now?
Tautofi: Officially, yes, but literally there are less than 700 students on campus.
HPW: If Kaimuki had been required to move from D-II to D-I, based on win-loss record, how would that have changed the program?
Tautofi: We wouldn’t have JV. (OIA) Division I is a bigger league with bigger, faster athletes. In D-II, we can afford to keep a JV team. I want to stay at 25-30 (varsity players), then we can farm. Our JV had 25 to 30 in the regular season.
HPW: I ask because I’ve seen programs completely dissolve their JV teams and have success in varsity, even though almost half of their roster is physically too small to compete at the varsity level. But those were teams like Hawaii Prep, which plays in a league that doesn’t have the same kind of competition, size and physicality as OIA D-I. Much smaller programs.
Tautofi: The kind of kids who are worthy of playing varsity, they’re far and few in-between. How and what they can contribute also makes a difference but in a different division it all changes drastically. Anything is sustainable, but the question is quality.
HPW: Size of enrollment is a starting point, but it isn’t always the best barometer, either.
Tautofi: McKinley has close to 2,000 enrollment, but they struggle to have a team. That’s mind-blowing to me, not in a bad way, but they have the potential to be something like a Farrington of D-II. It’s just a bigger talent pool.
HPW: Their boundary line goes all the way to Houghtailing Street, but they lose quite a bit of talent to private schools.
Tautofi: A few years ago, there was great concern for Waipahu and it’s football program simply struggling to compete. That’s until Bryson (Carvalho) turned the tables there, but they (Waipahu) have almost 3,000 kids, and struggled to field a team (previously). The demographics of what we work with at Kaimuki, you just have to flow with it and try to make an impact with each kid’s life. The quality is, what message are they getting for life.
HPW: Whether it is in D-I or D-II, last year was a major challenge for a high school team with so many ironmen. Will you have a bigger turnout for spring football?
Tautofi: There’s no telling. Every year is faith-based. Five years ago, there was nothing. Two years ago, when we ran our first green-and-gold game, we ended up having a good amount of kids, and a good number from the community just watching practice. This year, I hope to have enough to field two teams in a 7-on-7 situation. A lot of our kids are being pulled into other schools. Kalani. Roosevelt. Private schools. The best of our kids, most of them don’t get here.
HPW: The success that has come with you and your staff, it’s almost like a Catch-22, where the more you succeed with so few players, the more the outside world assumes the team will succeed every single year. It’s the classic, successful small-school program sometimes being punished for overachieving, and that Kaimuki automatically should be in D-I.
Tautofi: To be honest with you, I’ve never looked at it from that perspective, what other people say. I’ve built programs from nothing before. Doing it another way doesn’t really appeal too much to me. Do we have the kind of team that can compete in D-I? Absolutely. But at Kaimuki, it’s a different issue. As a program, we’ve been the overachievers, but we haven’t won the big game.
HPW: Kaimuki reached the OIA D-II final last season.
Tautofi: We haven’t won (the championship), but we’ve put ourselves in that position.
HPW: There still some people who think it’s no problem to play 20 or 25 kids against 70 or 80.
Tautofi: It comes down to safety.
HPW: There are also quite a few families that make decisions about high school based on exposure to college recruiters. When Sama Paama signed with Washington last February, that definitely proved a lot of doubters wrong. You came out of Kaimuki and wound up at UCLA. Yet, there are local families who have moved to the mainland with the hope of increasing the number of offers from universities.
Tautofi: For the exposure, there is a little bit of truth to that, but there’s many parts that move in order for a kid to get recruited. High schools like Saint Louis, Mater Dei, De La Salle, IMG, Bishop Gorman, there are a lot of football factories. Then there’s small schools. Rankings don’t matter at our level, but it does matter to colleges. A lot of it has gotten out of hand, the whole misperceptions and misunderstanding about exposure. The mainland is more affordable for families, but going out there for better opportunities, it’s hard to take because Hawaii is a Mecca, one of the top four states (per capita) in the country for football recruiting.
HPW: Some recruiters trust the brand of a high school program a lot. Maybe too much?
Tautofi: We’re not Kahuku or a Kapolei, but It is kind of branding. We’re just facing a lot more as a small school. Everything is connected from their home life to their school life. The rumors that go around about Kaimuki and competition. Let’s say we got kicked up to Open Division. We will always compete, not to win a championship, but it allows you to see what you’re actually made of. We’re tainted by what society paints us as.
HPW: So what are you expecting from your returnee core?
Tautofi: You never know. Every year is totally different. Hunter (Mulu) and Sama were in the class I coached when I first came to Kaimuki. Seeing what this team is going to be like is really the result of the last four years and what they’ve passed down.
HPW: Their legacy.
Tautofi: The influence around kids is great. These are the best kids, but many of their cliques can be absolute worst which is the case with most of ours. This is the time when you’re hunting for players. I don’t really push football. I just hope they’d take ownership of their own choices and their lives to want better for themselves and their future.
HPW: The format changed recently from a two-year window to one year. That’s better for most programs, but it still affects smaller programs when their top-heavy teams graduate big numbers.
Tautofi: I would love for us to compete in D-I this year, to be honest. You know what you can get out of these kids, but the talent we have this year is going to be senior heavy. What about next year and the year after that? It’s been tough for teams like Kaiser, Radford, Nanakuli.
HPW: I’ve noticed that making the GPA minimum (2.0) has been a problem for more and more girls teams, including the basketball team at Kaimuki. They had to play with just five players one day. It used to be that girls were often the better students. What happened?
Tautofi: Theres just many moving parts that all play into our collective responsibility in guiding these kids. Whether it’s be from lack of parental involvement to lack of faith in a system, the result still affects the kids and what ends up impacting everything else around them.
HPW: A lot of students want their classrooms to be safe havens, right? Someplace where they won’t feel the pressure of life. But if they don’t succeed academically, and there’s one lukewarm back-and-forth between a teacher and student, and the student might shut down for the rest of the semester.
Tautofi: The other part is the impact that these parents have in their involvement or lack of. Well over 50 percent of our student body come from broken homes. Moms trying to teach their sons how to be men. while fathers go missing. There’s just a desperate need of love and direction that only the family (father/mother) can provide.
HPW: For a lot of us as kids, having that void at home pushed us to give everything to school, to our coaches and teachers, if we just got a little push, a little encouragement.
Tautofi: What came of our last four seasons, being considered one of the best in our (division), that’s what we’ve worked for as a staff. If there’s not enough of us doing that, it’s like this city. If everyone was gone, the plants would still grow next to the concrete. We overachieved that first year because we tapped into our kids’ hearts and minds, going from second-worst to second-best. But that’s not enough.