Q&A: Kohala coach Chad Atkins on 8-man, 11-man football

The gap between Open Division and Division I football is real, and appreciated.

Then there’s the gap between D-I and D-II. Three levels of state championships in Hawaii. It is a beautiful thing. For Kohala, playing in eight-man football was challenging enough, never mind the 11-man game in D-II.

But the dominoes have begun to fall, and Pahoa’s decision to leap-frog into D-II football in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation leads Kohala in a tight spot. Ka‘u, the BIIF eight-man champion, followed suit, and now the Kohala Cowboys have no choice but to follow their peers.

That’s challenge for a program that listed 23 players on its roster last fall, and actually suited up 17. The Cowboys went 0-4 in BIIF eight-man play.

Athletic director Laurie Koustik believes eight-man is a good fit, but given no choice now but to move to 11-man, she’s putting her hope in the hands of second-year head coach Chad Atkins, who has built relationships with Pop Warner coaches in Kohala. It’s the Pop Warner program that has been consistent through the years, and when Tony Manantan moved up to the high school in the 1990s, that’s when the varsity team had its greatest success.

Atkins played on the Cowboys team that went 6-4 in a fully merged, double-round robin schedule. Now, the weight of the program’s future is squarely on his shoulders. Koustik and BIIF football coordinator Kalei Namohala point at 30 as the magic number for roster size in 11-man football. Can the Cowboys do it?

Coach Atkins chatted with Hawaii Prep World over the weekend.

HPW: Kohala has done a good job in keeping the football program alive when there are the usual distractions during and out of season. Pahoa has gone from an in-and-out program to one fielding 30-plus players, and Ka‘u has numbers and size. I’m hearing Ka‘u really wanted to scrimmage Konawaena with an 11-man format last season.

Atkins: (Ka‘u coach DuWayne Ke) wanted to scrimmage Saint Louis. He was in contact with Cal Lee. He wanted to move up since last year. For us small schools, we’ve had a small spurt of players for these past few years, and it’ll go back down. This coming year, we’ll have 30-plus and they’re all young, and hopefully it catches.

HPW: I know your AD has been a stickler for offseason conditioning, especially since Kohala doesn’t have a high number of big athletes, I mean players over 200 pounds, like other D-II teams. She’s never approved of guys avoiding the weight room all off season and then showing up in September.

Atkins: Me neither. I don’t want guys who just wear the uniform.

HPW: She said your connection with the Kohala Pop Warner program is crucial.

Atkins: This past year, I sent down shoulder pads for kids bigger than we had on the high school team. They were playing Pop Warner (Unlimited division) during our season, 10 to 12 freshmen, and they even took one of our sophomores. I like the Unlimited thing, but it should be just eighth grade, not high school kids playing against seventh and eighth graders.

HPW: That’s been a tradition at Kohala for decades, though, ninth graders under 130 pounds playing Pop Warner Midget division. How’s your relationship with the coaches there?

Atkins: I’m pulling one of the coaches up to my staff, Coach Eddie Valenzuela, He has been coaching a long time. He said that if we go to 11-man, he’ll yank up all the kids were in high school. That’s going to be a boost for us. There will be parents who might say they won’t play for us. But playing in eight-man it kind of pushed the kids away. Several kids wanted to transfer out. I think they were saying that because they were scared. When Unlimited came out, they had a bunch of kids.

HPW: What’s the count there on Pop Warner players who will be on varsity.

Atkins: That’s 11 to 13 players. Incoming freshmen, three or four will come up. I talked to several of them at the basketball game. They gave me the, ‘I’m gonna talk to my parents.’

HPW: So that’s where the offseason commitment is huge.

Atkins: I’ll have a handful of kids who will train in the summer, but the majority I’ll have to chase.

HPW: What was it like back in the ‘90s when Kohala made a lot of noise in the BIIF?

Atkins: In the 1990s, when they came out, ’til to this day, that was our best team. Numbers hurt them but they could compete, Glen Roxburgh, he played on that team.

HPW: Jacob Hook was the quarterback, a really mobile and smart passer. He’s coaching girls basketball now, right?

Atkins: Yes. I tried to get Jacob to coach football, but his girl plays basketball.
His younger boy plays JV basketball, a freshman. I had his older son, Maui, he played eight-man.

HPW: Kohala has always, always had speed. Tremendous athletes and it shows in basketball, volleyball, softball. Why do you think it hasn’t materialized in football consistently?

Atkins: The culture in Kohala with the kids is, they’re not motivated. There’s no pride or anything, so you’ve got to spark them with something else. Plenty of kids try out because we’re going to Maui. Something that will spark their interest.

HPW: I remember back in the ‘90s, working at West Hawaii Today, going to the east side to do interviews for our annual preseason tabloid. Pahoa was our first stop. Three players and one assistant coach showed up. They ended up folding a week or two later. Then we went to Hilo, and they were ready. Just got through distributing uniforms. And then Waiakea, Coach Tim Lino had them already in full pads and uniforms, seated in the gym on the bleachers. Incredible discipline.

Atkins: When Pahoa came back in 1999, that was our first win in 22 years, then we went 6-4. That’s when Waiakea was good and we scored the most points against Waiakea, that was 12 points.

HPW: It’s crazy that all the great athletes from Kohala in the 1980s and ‘90s have their kids in high school now.

Atkins: Laa Kauka, Lawrence’s son, he’s a good freshman on the varsity. He’s got that look like his dad. Even Kalei Emeliano’s boy, a big kid, he won’t let his kid play. They’re so focused on basketball and thinking they’re going to college for basketball. He’ll be a junior next year. Keone (Emeliano’s) boy is a freshman.

Ocean Cazimero, scored probably 30 points tonight against Keaau, he wants me to talk to his dad (Reeve) about football.

HPW: Reeve Cazimero, now there’s a name I haven’t heard in ages. He was a really good point guard. And all these guys played in Pop Warner?

Atkins: All of them played Pop Warner and they were good.

HPW: So the challenge within the challenge has always been getting enough size in the trenches. Will you have enough linemen for 11-man?

Atkins: We would’ve been happy with three linemen for eight-man. I had to drop some tight ends in there.

HPW: I asked Kalei Namohala about this and she is open to it. What if the smaller schools like Makua Lani and Parker teamed up to start an eight-man team, kind of like Big Island version of Pac-Five. Kalei said Ka‘u might consider staying in eight-man, and then if Kohala stays there, it would still be a three-team league.

Atkins: If there was a Pac-3, I would stay down. It’s more competitive for us. 11-man, we’re going to need some talent.

HPW: But you do have those incoming players from Kohala Pop Warner.

Atkins: I have some returnees back on the line with size, and those kids who I lent shoulder pads to.

HPW: Are they above 200 pounds?

Atkins: I’ll have eight to 10 linemen. I’ll get them to 200 by the season.

HPW: I remember interviewing Saint Louis coach Cal Lee after the 2017 season in his makeshift office. A bunch of his linemen marched in and he tossed them jugs of Muscle Milk. It was quite a sight.

Atkins: We did some fundraising so I can go to Costco and get Muscle Milk. What we did in previous years is we’d buy the bag of Muscle Milk and make it before practice.

HPW: Do they like vanilla or chocolate?

Atkins: This is Kohala and everybody likes their sweets, so he kids probably like chocolate.

HPW: You’re still a young guy. Do you race the players sometimes?

Atkins: I raced the 23 players at the beginning of the season and I beat 20. I told them you have run a lap for every guy I beat. They asked what if we all beat you?

HPW: How far was the race?

Atkins: 25 yards.

HPW: I remember Coach Lino taking over a 2-8 Waiakea team. He hit the weight room every day in the summer with his players, ran a tight ship, put his experience from UH to work. They won a couple of championships within a few seasons.

Atkins: Lino had a machine over there. They had good players. My first year of college, I was with one of the Waiakea players. John Kauka, and he wanted a training partner. I thought we would run at the park, and he had one of the Waiakea coaches putting us through drills. They were trying to get us both to walk on at UH. I hurt my knee at the end of my senior year. I could run around and train, but to be competitive again, no. I did play in the Alumni games. USA Football did a league.

HPW: Wow, I remember hearing about that. That didn’t last long, though.

Atkins: Too much liability.

HPW: The semi-pro league in the ‘90s was insane. Full-grown men who still had speed, but were 50 to 100 pounds heavier than high school. I saw some great games at the Old Kona Airport field right there from the sideline. Kona Ikaika were one of the top teams, practicing five days a week.

Atkins: We had Waimea.

HPW: That team was big and tough. Kimo Schuckert, I remember him out there doing damage. But the had low numbers and would get worn out by the fourth quarter. Hilo had a powerful team, too. That was fun stuff in the summer. So what happens now with the Cowboys and the move to 11-man?

Atkins: Spring football will be in May. I’ll keep the eighth graders informed. I put a contact list together and put it out last year, and I’ll do it again this year. We’ll get started next month at least with weights for the kids who are going to be freshmen.

HPW: So the players who are currently eighth graders can’t work out at the high school until the school year is done?

Atkins: Correct.

HPW: There are a lot of hoops to jump through for you as the head coach, and the players have a lot of odds stacked against them.

Atkins: It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

HPW: And the bus rentals. Ka‘u pays $1,200 to travel to games.

Atkins: It would be a huge help if we got a bus.

HPW: The logical format for football would be for the D-I teams to have their double-round robin. Waiakea, Keaau, Kealakehe, Hilo. They all have JV teams, good gate numbers.

Atkins: What should happen is Konawaena and Kamehameha-Hawaii should be in D-I. It’s a cakewalk for either one to be in D-II.

HPW: You mean, nobody in D-II should be forfeiting games to a D-I team like Hilo like last season?

Atkins: I think Kamehameha-Hawaii has a scared mentality. Just having a cakewalk season, if you don’t want that, that’s up to you. We want to move up to 11-man, we’re not afraid of moving up. Especially Konawaena. They can beat every team on the island. Kona has a good program. His freshman QB, he made freshman mistakes, but he’s still good. Brad (Uemoto) knows how to mold his players.

HPW: From what I understand, Konawaena has no plans to move up to D-I, at least not until they win a state title. I remember the smallest programs in the BIIF making the right decision to forfeit late-season games against Kealakehe several years ago when Sam Papalii was the head coach and they had a dynasty going.

Atkins: If Papalii had the kids they have now, Hilo would have competition. The Tongan kids would be playing. The system just isn’t working there. You have coaches fighting with parents in the stands. Kealakehe has a lot of kids, fast and big, you get whatever you need.

HPW: What will it take for Kohala to show what it can do on the football field?

Atkins: If we do all right, we’re going to have a pretty good season. I just need them to believe in the system. When I first started last year, I had a whole bunch of kids come out, but the attitude, and if you had bad grades, I don’t even deal with you, but they know what I’m all about. I want to send someone to college from Kohala.

HPW: Who will you have at quarterback?

Atkins: At quarterback, I have several options. My quarterback from last year turned the ball over too much. He has size and he’s young. I could use him in a rotation. Keone (Emeliano’s) kid, I’d like to see what he can do. He’s fast. He’s a freshman and I really like how he is a general on the basketball court. Those kinds of kids can make good decisions and keep their composure, that will translate to the football field.

HPW: The Emeliano brothers were fantastic basketball players and athletes. You mentioned that Kalei’s son probably won’t play, but what do you like about him?

Atkins: Kalei’s kid, I’d like to use him as tight end. But Kalei said, ‘You’ve got to go through the mother.’

HPW: It takes time to build up that groundswell.

Atkins: A lot of it for me is being a presence, like doing security at the basketball games. The kids will say, ‘Coach, what’s up?’ I’ve been part of the community for a long time. I’d just like to see what they can do on the field.

HPW: Do you see the ‘90s Waiakea program as a bit of a model? They had numbers, but they didn’t have a lot of gigantic athletes. They worked their way into titles with offseason weight training and drills.

Atkins: My first game against Waiakea was, ‘Wow, these guys are a machine.’ That was right when we came back from Oahu scrimmages with Farrington, Castle, spent a day at Kahuku, then we played Kalani at Aloha Stadium. That was in ’96. That’s when we came back and went 6-4.

HPW: I remember seeing a few of your games at Kamehameha Park. What was the roster size?

Atkins: We had like 35. We almost beat Konawaena and HPA, so we could’ve actually been 8-2. We smashed Hilo High twice.

HPW: That was after the years that (the late) David Namauu coached them to a BIIF title.

Atkins: David Namauu coached my dad (Doug).

HPW: What’s your wish for the program? What would you say to your players right now?

Atkins: My goal is for you guys to get out of Kohala, see the world, and come back and make Kohala better.


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