For a time, it seemed quite certain that the Kealakehe Waveriders would dominate football on the Big Island for eternity.
Each season during the reign of Coach Cliff Walters, then Sam Papalii, the biggest school on the Kona Coast outscored opponents by outlandish margins. Kealakehe ruled the Division I standings of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation from 2004-08 and ’10-12, capturing eight championships in nine seasons. The final standings would always show something around 550 PF (points for) and just 100 PA (points against). Nothing could stop this big baby blue machine… but itself.
Over time, Papalii, the former college assistant, was no longer the coach. In the years since, Sam Kekuaokalani, the boys basketball coach, stepped in. Kealakehe was no longer a dynasty, but was still competitive. Kekuaokalani was released recently, opening possibilities. The school hired longtime Konawaena assistant/JV coach Wyatt Nahale, who has been part of the Wildcats’ collection of eight BIIF D-II titles since ’08.
Now, there is a possibility — a rebirth — of a major rivalry between the two high schools in a region of the Big Island that has always loved football.
Open up the archives and fans will remember Nahale as part of the Konawaena post-dynasty legacy started by legendary coach Jim Barry. From 1980 to ’91, it was Barry at the controls for most of that stretch as the Wildcats completely dominated the BIIF with title after title.
Parity began to set in, however, with the rise of Hilo behind the late, great David Namau‘u, quarterback Robert Medeiros, linebacker Tod Bello and 6-foot-3 wide receiver Casey Newman. Konawaena was still in the mix when Barry returned to coach for one season.
Nahale, a former quarterback, had transitioned to offensive line after arriving at Konawaena. His cerebral approach and athleticism as a center became a major asset. With massive, speedy Gibson Alip at right guard, the Wildcats became an explosive team out of a power-I formation, able to blast forward in the trenches, then exploit the perimeter with a bulldozing power sweep. Alip and Nahale leading the way around the edge with blazing-fast Scotty Lewis toting the pigskin became a frequent crescendo that led to long touchdown runs at Julian Yates Field during that ’95 season.
That Wildcat team lost to Waiakea, a program guided out of the shadows to prominence by then-coach Tim Lino. It was one of three consecutive titles during Lino’s stay before he retired to become an administrator. Coincidentally, Nahale later served in the National Guard, then worked as head of security at Kealakehe, where Lino was a vice-principal.
Nahale’s love for the game never wavered. He began coaching, leading the Leeward Steelers Pop Warner team on a voyage to Florida one season. He assisted at Konawaena before accepting the JV head coaching position for four seasons. He coached varsity wide receivers last fall.
Nahale’s family actually lives one minute away from the Kealakehe campus. When he played at Konawaena, Kealakehe was little more than a sketch on a map, opening in ’98. His father, the late Joe Nahale, was also a longtime Konawaena assistant. He was hired to be the Waveriders’ first head football coach in ’98. He was diagnosed with cancer a year later and stepped away, never to coach again. Joe Nahale passed away a couple of years ago.
Nahale, 41, is an 11-year veteran of the Hawaii County Police Department. He chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday night.
HPW: There are probably a wide spectrum of opinions on the Kona Coast about what Kealakehe football should be and could be. Are they a playoff-level team that should be content to reach the final against Hilo — now the six-time defending BIIF D-I champion — every year? Or is this when the dynasty returns? It’s almost unfair, but that’s the level of attention the program gets.
Nahale: I think for right now, coming into the program, I definitely believe that the potential at Kealakehe is very great. For me, some of the challenges I face would be implementing a new system and trying to figure out the talent that I’m going to have. Having the kids buying into a new system is going to be my challenge. Once I can establish that and have them believe in what I’m trying to establish, and my vision for the program, I think everything will fall in line. There are a lot of numbers, lot of talented kids, a lot of potential.
HPW: What is your role going to be like? Will you be on campus or do you work off campus?
Nahale: I want to play a bigger part on campus. My biggest thing is I want to bring how the kids perform off the field, not only with academics, but how they conduct themselves in school, in the community. They’re reflection of the school and their parents. Adding the x’s and o’s, it has to fall in line in that order for us to ultimately be successful, winning games and winning championships.
HPW: Your history as a coach and player goes back. Nahale is a very familiar name at Konawaena.
Nahale: My dad, Joe, was a coach at Konawaena, and he got hired at Kealakehe in 1998. What’s special about him is he always surrounded us with good role models on his staff. Ultimately, that’s who we wanted to look up to. He coached at Konawaena seven or eight years, and he was the JV head coach. He became the head coach at Kealakehe and coached one year, then he got sick, diagnosed with cancer. He went into treatment, remission.
HPW: So he beat cancer for all those years.
Nahale: Yeah. He got into car accident in 2014. He was at the Life Care Center. He passed away a couple years ago. He had a lot of internal injuries from the accident.
HPW: Now you’re getting a chance to finish what he started at Kealakehe.
Nahale: That’s exactly I thought about.
HPW: So you were on the O-line during the season when Gibson Alip was at guard, and you guys would overpower people, and also run these unbelievable power sweeps, leading the way downfield. I never saw anything like it.
Nahale: Yeah, I was a quarterback and then moved to center. Gibson was at right guard and the running back was Scotty Lewis. Coach Jim Barry was our coach for that one season. I ran into coach recently. His memory is as sharp as ever. I saw Gibson recently. He said, ‘Your dad was my favorite coach. I never got into trouble because I was scared of him.’ A lot of guys felt like Gibson. My dad was strong with discipline, but fair. You couldn’t cross him.
HPW: What will it be like bringing your system to Kealakehe?
Nahale: Offensively, I do want to spread it out, but I’ve got to look at my talent and our strengths. Kealakehe has been known to have great running backs.
HPW: Prepping for Kealakehe at the varsity and JV levels while you were at Konawaena, you must have seen a lot of talent in blue uniforms.
Nahale: Watching them on film throughout the years, they’re always the team we have to circle on the calendar. Dangerous. You don’t know what you’re going to get out of Kealakehe. A lot of talent there and capable of a lot of things. When we go into the week preparing, we watch them on film, they’re very impressive. Their kids have size and ability.
HPW: That side of Kona has always had feeder teams like Kalaoa and the teams at the Old Airport. What is the team that Solid Rock (Ministries) took over in the ‘90s?
Nahale: That’s West Side Eagles. Solid Rock isn’t around anymore. Pastor Tex (Texeira) retired. It’s a different church now, but they still have the West Side Eagles and a lot of the same coaches.
HPW: Some of the players who did well for Kealakehe in the past didn’t always play youth football. They’ve got some big guys there who didn’t make Pop Warner weight.
Nahale: What’s important for us is the offseason, putting in the work that they’re going to need to participate in youth sports.
HPW: I know some coaches around the island who have been concerned about losing ninth graders to that new division or league.
Nahale: That’s Pop Warner Unlimited Division.
HPW: So some kids are playing in that instead of their high school JV program. Why would they do that?
Nahale: That’s the magic question. Honestly, for right now, I just want to get in there and get to work, get the program going in the right direction.
HPW: So the natural expectation for fans in both districts is that Kealakehe and Konawaena could eventually sweep in D-I and D-II on the Big Island. That would be tough because Hilo is still dominant.
Nahale: I respect Brad (Uemoto of Konawaena) and the program, but I think we both want success for each other.
HPW: How soon will things get going at Kealakehe. It’s early March, so you’ve got a pretty good timetable.
Nahale: I’m going to meet with the team sometime next week.
HPW: You’ve been wearing green or black Wildcat shirts for all these decades. Do you have any light blue shirts in the wardrobe?
Nahale: No light blue shirts. Not yet.
HPW: What’s your family situation? Married, children?
Nahale: I’m married and we have five kids, 19 years old to 2. Two of our kids are at Konawaena, a son and daughter.
HPW: So I thought when the Kealakehe position opened that maybe Tim Lino would apply, not knowing where he was or if he was still an administrator. Then I ran into him at the Polynesian Bowl (on Oahu).
Nahale: He’s working on Oahu. When he was the vice-principal at Kealakehe in 1999, I was head of security. I was in National Guard, just back (to Kona). He was my supervisor for a couple of years. He was a football junkie. I liked to hang with him.
HPW: I was always amazed from the very start when Coach Lino got there. We drove over early in the morning to take photos and do interviews in preseason. His team was always in uniform, ready to go, sitting on the bleachers. He really ran a tight ship. Do you hit the weight room with the kids like he did?
Nahale: Oh yeah, I’ll be doing that.
HPW: I think he got as much out of his players as anyone during the ‘90s. They didn’t have a ton of tall, big guys. Maybe Samson Kela, who played at UH.
Nahale: And they had Olen Rosehill on the D-line.
HPW: What’s it like in a sort-of return to Kealakehe?
Nahale: Mr. (Glenn) Gray, our principal, the one thing I do know is he has a vision for the students and athletics. Our visions are very similar. That’s one great thing that I feel very comfortable about.
HPW: It’s been a long time since anyone knocked off Hilo. Coach Kaeo Drummondo and his staff have been outstanding.
Nahale: I’ve known Kaeo off the field. He’s a police officer, too, and their team is very well coached. Playing a team like that will make us better coaches.