Ka‘u is a pristine place with unspoiled beaches, great fishing and hunting, and just enough modernization without tainting the country lifestyle residents love.
It’s also a place where the only football field hasn’t had working lights for three years. When Ka‘u athletic director Kalei Namohala looks at her teams’ road games, it’s always a nightmare. Bus rentals range from $1,100 to $1,200 for drives to Keaau, Kohala and everywhere in between.
With Pahoa declaring that it will leave eight-man football to join the 11-man teams of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, Namohala and her coaches were caught in a tough spot. Yes, they finished the recent eight-man season with 33 players, a healthy number. But eight-man has proven to be a good niche for the school. With Pahoa gone, only Ka‘u and Kohala remained in eight-man.
The only real option, she said, is to move to 11-man. The Trojans have a long and proud history in 11-man football going back more than a half-century. As the BIIF’s football coordinator, Namohala will also keep a close eye on scheduling options, especially if Kohala, which had 23 players last season, struggles to get to the “magic number” of 30.
Namohala, a former standout basketball player, then athletic trainer, at Waiakea, chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday.
HPW: Can you rewind back to the start of eight-man football for the BIIF?
Namohala: In 2013, we played some JV teams, played Molokai home and home. We had 22 kids. Only 18 or 19 were consistent.
HPW: But you stuck with it.
Namohala: We needed football on our campus, and our coaches weren’t happy with the low numbers, but they were game. People thought it would be like flag football, but when Seabury Hall came here they saw what it really is.
HPW: It’s a great game with lots of space, lots of big plays for speedy athletes.
Namohala: I think we’re more competitive eight-man, but with Pahoa leaving we don’t have a league.
(Note: a minimum of three teams is necessary to be recognized as a championship sport.)
HPW: Let me be crazy for a second. What if small schools like Parker, Makua Lani and anyone else banded together to form an eight-man team, kind of like Pac-Five of the ILH? Would Ka‘u stay in eight-man?
Namohala: If a third team replaced Pahoa, I’d think about it. But like Pahoa, we always thought about 11-man. The community wants it.
HPW: With just three teams, that’s like the KIF (Kauai Interscholastic Federation), three teams playing each other three times. That’s pretty rough.
Namohala: This year we decided just to play each other two times, then a semifinal and a championship, so you might play the other teams a third time.
HPW: How has attendance been for eight man?
Namohala: Attendance is a roller coaster. It depends on who we’re playing. We’re going to draw more fans in 11-man. I can tell because in eight-man I got by with teachers providing security. I’ll have to hire (security) for 11-man.
HPW: How has Pahala Field been for the football team?
Namohala: Our lights haven’t been working for the last three years, so we’ve had to play day games and the attendance isn’t as good. Our senators and councilpersons ask what I need every year and they get some things done. But the lights for the field are on the wish list and they’re still broken.
HPW: Is that a county task or state?
Namohala: This is probably the only place that’s half state, half county. It also affects other sports. The community used to use field for night softball. Now that’s in Naalehu and that’s 15 miles away.
HPW: How do your coaches and players feel about 11-man football?
Namohala: DuWayne (Ke, head coach) is happy. They’ve been wanting to go 11-man for a long time.
This year we started with 40 and finished with 33 and 26 played.
HPW: How many players will be back?
Namohala: We’ll return 24.
HPW: I’ve heard that the Unlimited Division of Pop Warner has drawn a lot of ninth graders, which affects JV teams in Hilo. Laurie Koustik (Kohala athletic director) is hoping to get help from the Pop Warner coaches for her team’s coaches.
Namohala: When we had the Lions, the feeder program, they would take our freshmen so we didn’t have enough for 11-man. I’m not sure now. They might have folded out here.
HPW: So what is the magic number for your football program?
Namohala: For us and Kohala, we want to have 30 players physically there. We’ve had 40 sign up and 24 show up (last year), and that’s when we decided not to go into 11-man.
HPW: I know for Kohala it’s tough to survive week to week without size in the trenches.
Namohala: We do have a line now and a couple of them are freshmen. The (next freshman) class coming in has big kids and they’re athletic.
HPW: How do the numbers break down for your other grades?
Namohala: We had 11 juniors, and then three of them quit. We had eight sophomores and the freshmen, it was the most we’ve had in awhile, nine. Our sophomores were key for us this year, and three of them started or were in the rotation for our offensive line. As long as the kids work hard and the coaches work hard, we’ll stay in 11-man.
HPW: When do schools have to declare which division they will play in?
Namohala: Nobody declared yet. Nobody has to declare until August. We’re still figuring out the format. So I’ve got to wait for the votes whether we’ll have a divisional schedule.
HPW: So there are four Division I and four Division II football teams, and now the addition of the three teams that were in eight-man. Does it make sense to play a league-wide round-robin, or to separate the D-I and D-II teams?
Namohala: With D-I against D-I, the benefit is the gate will be huge because those programs have JV teams. The (former eight-man) teams don’t have JV.
HPW: Even without JV, football teams need to rent buses. That gets expensive. I remember schools paying $200 to $300 for a bus rental in the 1990s, and I heard it’s gone up to $500.
Namohala: If I charter a bus to go to Kohala it’s $1,100. For my soccer team, it is $1,200. Then there’s overtime.
HPW: Woh, that’s insane!
Namohala: We strive to have our own vehicles and drivers. It’s like running a circus on peanuts. It’s good to have a strong community organization to help us with the deficits. There’s only one charter company we can go to. Kohala has more than one. Every year it costs more and more.
HPW: With soccer, does the schedule accommodate enough so a school can send boys and girls to the same site in one bus instead of splitting up?
Namohala: Most times it’s boys and girls. together. But the schedule is staggered, one starts before the other, so we try to communicate and play games together.
HPW: So it hardly matters if the destination is closer.
Namohala: To Honokaa, it’s $1,200. To Kamehameha-Hawaii (in Keaau), it’s $1,100. Not too many coaches want to come out to Ka‘u and coach, so we appreciate the coaches we have.
HPW: The assistant coaches in most sports don’t get paid, and head coaches barely make enough to cover gas, but they love what they do.
Namohala: We practice until 5:30 pm. A lot of kids don’t have a ride home, so we have an activity bus to take them home to Naalehu and Ocean View. Some of the coaches can’t get off work at 2:15 like the kids when they get out of class. Most of our coaches coach multiple sports.
HPW: That takes a toll, all those practices, then bus rides or car rides all over the island for two sport seasons or three. So back to eight-man football, there are all kinds of possibilities for aligning teams by how they declare, or whether to go round-robin, whether to separate the divisions. What happens if a team or two drops out.
Namohala: If people can’t play then it’ll probably be a bye.
HPW: Do you have four or five different spreadsheets laid out with different possible schedules? Man, that sounds like a headache.
Namohala: I’m not (former Waiakea AD, the late) Ken Yamase, I’m not that good.
HPW: He was a fully prepared coach, and then administrator. He would’ve probably had a bunch of spreadsheets.
Namohala: Guarantee, I’ve watched him have four or five spreadsheets. He was my mentor and taught me so much about the job.
HPW: So does the addition of three 11-man football teams change anything logistically?
Namohala: Please add this. We need officials. We only have two crews, so we can only have two games a night. Everybody took their turn at having a Thursday night game. That was the last two years.
HPW: Do they still do Pop Warner games from 8 a.m., then the 2 p.m. game at Hawaii Prep, then a night game?
Namohala: They don’t want to do doubleheaders. A lot of them are getting older.