Kip Akana rarely sits still.
Between football and baseball coaching, the day begins early and ends long after the sun sets — just the way he likes it. The St. Francis football coach has seen enormous growth by his team over the past three seasons. On Saturday afternoon, the Saints (7-3) will face defending champion Damien for the second-round title of Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II.
St. Francis will need to win that game, then defeat regular-season winner Damien again next week for the championship. It’s a unique situation for a unique program, and Akana has a unique relationship with son Bubba, a junior quarterback and baseball player who is a key performer for the Saints. Akana has learned to delegate and let go to an extent, becoming more of a manager, and it works.
Akana works at the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, where his quarterbacks coach, Paul Ah Yat, is a co-worker. In the spring, they are frenemies. Ah Yat is also the head baseball coach at Pac-Five.
The Saints coach chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Friday morning.
St. Francis football and baseball
HPW: How’s the overall health of the Saints this week?
Akana: (6-7, 340-pound offensive lineman) Ope (Laloulu) sat out of the Pac-Five game and the Damien game. He had limited reps against ‘Iolani. He won’t start (on Saturday), but he should be good to go.
HPW: What’s the personality of this year’s team?
Akana: There’s a good sense of leadership and sense of urgency from our seniors. Also the looseness and playfulness of the underclassmen which leads to an awesome blend. We have an awesome group of sophomores. They do just enough where the seniors don’t have to put them in check. They want to support the seniors and they’re respectful of the environment that the seniors have built.
HPW: One of the most notable things about St. Francis for us spectators is the way the offense has gone from a one-dimensional running game to a balanced attack. Bubba Akana has been so efficient. The attempts are up, but between him, Damien’s Marcus Faufata-Pedrina and ‘Iolani’s Tai-John Mizutani, there has been good efficiency.
Akana: We have the ability to adapt to whatever defense is presented to us. Our offensive coordinator, Kaniela Neves. He played offensive guard for Utah when Alex Smith was the QB. For being a big O-lineman, the guy loves to throw the ball.
HPW: Covering ILH Division II has been a lot of fun. Every game is so competitive, and there are more fans of other schools who are seeing the rise of Damien and St. Francis. A lot of them might not consider St. Francis on par with a lot of OIA teams, but they might not know the Saints came so close to beating Leilehua, which went on to finish second in their division (OIA Red).
Akana: I’d be lying if I didn’t say we didn’t want people’s respect. The only way to do this is to play big teams.
HPW: It’s a different challenge if you play bigger programs all season long, maybe.
Akana: If the game was two quarters, yes, but we have roughly 30 boys in each class. I believe we have the talent to compete for one or two quarters, but the lack of depth would catch up with us.
But we do want to bring respect to the division we play in. Most sportswriters I speak to enjoy watching ILH D-II because of the parity. We coach for the school and the kids. We might not get titles and championships, but respect goes a long way for coaches like me, Eddie (Klaneski of Damien) and Kip (Botelho of Pac-Five).
HPW: There’s a special commitment when it comes to a small school and athletics. I’ve noticed a good number of smaller schools that have dropoffs from one year to another in the number of student-athletes they’ve enrolled. It’s a tough challenge to keep it going year after year financially, but they keep plugging along.
Akana: Our school does have fundraisers to help the financial aid program. like our baseball team facilitating a golf tournament for the athletic department. The biggest thing for us is not so much going out to encourage people to give St. Francis a chance, but the media has done a good job in helping us promote our athletics. Our programs are moving in the right direction and enrollment will always be small because the campus is small.
We always know in spring people are waiting for the letters from their dream schools, Kamehameha, Punahou, ‘Iolani, Mid-Pac and other schools, but at St. Francis we’re showing that if athletics is important to you, you can go to D-II school. We have a bunch of guys being recruited in football. We put our nose down and grind. Damien is garnering a lot of alumni support. You go to their games and that place is packed.
HPW: ILH baseball is another interesting animal. The league allows teams to move up or down from year to year, basically.
Akana: In baseball, we will play D-I for one round only next season, then play against programs of our size. We’re not delusional.
HPW: It’s not easy coaching in the ILH, where so many people have strong opinions whether they’re parents or alumni or both. I’m coming across coaches who have politely declined to be interviewed recently and I don’t blame them.
Akana: I can’t imagine what guys at those schools go through. You have two types of parents: one who grumble that their kids aren’t playing, or their kid is not playing the position they want. It’s hard and it’s trying, but we have position coaches and coordinators and they make those decisions. I allow them to coach. At the end of the day the head coach will take the praise or the blame. I’ve got a lot of respect for those coaches at the big schools.
HPW: The identity of St. Francis football is interesting. The sky-blue uniforms. Not having a home field for games. Starting from scratch at a formerly all-girls school. And in recent years, some outstanding student-athletes from Tonga. It’s a destination now for kids from there who want to play football in the states.
Akana: There is a program in place. I’m not privilege to the nuts and bolts of who comes in and gets in. We have (a basketball/volleyball) kid from Serbia and all our Tongan students are in the international program. I’ve heard speculation, but for international kids who have to learn a new language, it’s not easy. Some of the kids are good-looking rugby-type players and football is relatively new to them. They can’t go on the field and they’re stars right away. They have to learn everything from a three-point stance to what the gaps are. All the fundamentals. It takes a year, if we’re lucky, for them to learn the nuances of the game. I’ve got to give credit to my coaches at varsity and intermediate. They get to the final product. There’s a lot of film work, understanding and patience.
HPW: That’s a blessing for a small school. It’s still a big hurdle for most families to pay tuition, lot of schools competing for student-athletes.
Akana: Nobody goes to school for free here. Roughly 95 percent of our kids grew up on Oahu. That’s what the program is built on. We have four kids on the varsity from Tonga.
HPW: And you need every player at a small school. One starter goes down with an injury, you probably have to fill three or four spots on special teams. So that second-string lineman who rarely plays is crucial.
Akana: There’s an ILH rule in place that you need 30 players, so even more so we need every guy.
HPW: What if St. Francis could enroll baseball players from Taiwan or Japan?
Akana: I’d take them.