Rivalry and respect: Kamehameha, Saint Louis complete football exhibitions

Kamehameha quarterback Jonah Yuen and fullback Andrew-Lee Smith have been teammates since first grade. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

The email arrived on Thursday.

Richard and Makanani Rivera suddenly had a change of plans for Thursday night. Instead of watching the online stream of their son Kama’s last high school football experience, they were allowed into Kunuiakea Stadium to witness it live. Saint Louis and Kamehameha in a gritty, old-fashioned scrimmage.

“It’s about time,” Richard Rivera said before laughing.


“We just found out we could watch today,” Makanani Rivera said.

“Oh yeah, we were happy,” Richard Rivera said.

“It was a disadvantage for them not to have football, pretty much,” Makanani Rivera said. “We’re kind of over COVID already. It’s time to get back at it.”

Makanani and George Rivera were surprised on Thursday morning by an email. For the first time since the pandemic began, they got to see their son, Kama, play in a scrimmage between Saint Louis and Kamehameha. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

There was a first in this exhibition slate of scrimmages by private-school programs: cheerleaders. Seven Kamehameha seniors and one junior suited up for the first time in the school year for football.

“Tonight, I liked how we were able to get some parents in here to watch everyone,” senior Alalaua Paik said. “I’m really going to miss the jokes we make on this team because these girls are funny.”

Seniors Amber Hee, Kuulei Santiago, Alalaua Paik, Noe Hussey, Maile Look, Rachel Radona and junior Jaeden Jimenez cheered at the football scrimmage on Thursday. The team is coached by Melissa Wennihan, Faye Aki and Kanani Kekuawela. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

The format was varied enough to keep coaches and players on their toes. Two series from the 40-yard line. Then several series with first-down chains, followed by a few series in the red zone. Two hungry, competitive teams were eager to put a good imprint on each other. Katoosh City. The Warriors, in particular, wanted to remember the end of their brief exhibition slate with a certain flair. Their defense did that to an extent, putting solid tackles and hits on the Crusaders’ receivers and running backs, sometimes in the backfield. Sometimes downfield. Celebrating more and more until Saint Louis’ offensive linemen became protective at the point of contact and howling by the Warriors.

Good, old-fashioned, (mostly) unfiltered tackle football. There was just enough intensity to remind fans of what used to be.

The Crusaders got their point across, of course. The four-time defending Open Division state champions got touchdown strikes from senior Connor Apo and junior AJ Bianco. The recipients were sophomore Nick Delgadillo and senior Keanu Wallace. One long missile by Bianco was dropped at the 5-yard line. No matter. The Crusaders and their four-wide attack kept coming. Saint Louis’ defense also came up with a fumble and an interception, both likely touchdown returns in a normal setting.

For a bit of a stretch, neither offense generated points. A few sacks created by good coverage trickled into the surreal atmosphere, which meant whistles were blown before quarterbacks took the full brunt from pursuers. Fans on Kamehameha’s side of the bleachers — there was no boundary line — didn’t take kindly to an early-series, blind-side sack by Saint Louis that was full-contact on Kamehameha’s Jonah Yuen.

That was the spark that got Warrior fans riled up, and the hooting and hollering didn’t end until the scrimmage was done and the teams lined up across the hashmarks before shaking hands, hugging and sharing a real moment in the cosmos. The crazy cosmos of the past 14 months since the first lockdown began.

“I wish there was more,” said Joseph Yuen, father of Kamehameha’s quarterback. “But it is what it is, I guess, yeah?”

Joseph Yuen and Natalia Sandoval enjoyed the one and only live football action of exhibition football. Their son, Jonah, threw a touchdown pass against Saint Louis. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

The school did more than host a scrimmage that required all players and coaches to be tested for COVID-19, that permitted parents from both teams to watch from the bleachers, masked and distanced. A senior-night style ceremony preceded the first snap. Balloons, signs, even a huge bouquet of roses found their way to the field as each Kamehameha senior was honored.

Somehow, even through the worst of a global pandemic, the cancellation of their season and what could have been a mere shred or semblance of actual football, teams regained their cultures. Relationships evolved as Kamehameha’s team returned and had highly-protocoled workouts.

The senior-night celebration hasn’t been limited to the Warriors. Across the islands, seniors were honored at intrasquad scrimmages for sports that were cancelled by leagues. They will be done in spring sports that are on the cusp of their final week of play.

Two scrimmages. That’s what Yuen, the quarterback, and his teammate since first grade, Andrew-Lee Smith, got as seniors. Two is better than zero, they say, and they cherish those battles with Punahou and Saint Louis.

“The thing I’ll remember most about this night is playing with my brothers one last time and, most importantly, getting one last handoff from this guy,” Smith said of Yuen. “Working hard with my teammates. It’s definitely something I’ll remember for my lifetime.’

Yuen was sometimes elusive, darting through and away from Saint Louis’ speedy pass rush. He spiraled a touchdown pass to sophomore Chavis Lee, who Smith called the fastest sophomore in the state.

“What I’m going to remember most about tonight is our team coming out and executing almost to perfection after months and months over Zoom and on the field,” Yuen said. “It’s night and day. It’s way different laying in bed and looking at your playbook and coaches telling you what’s going on than when you’re on the field.”

Kamehameha coach Abu Ma‘afala has been through strange, scary times when it comes to global crises. He was a senior defensive lineman for Kamehameha in 2001 when 9/11 devastated New York City. His poise and perspective as a high school student-athlete were notable even then. Two decades later, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop the coaching staff’s dedication to their players. Or the Warriors’ bond with each other.

“We’ve been together since October, November. The blessing of COVID was when they came here on campus and practiced, they didn’t spend any of their mental or emotional energy elsewhere on campus. They were able to come here and focus on each other. They did a great job. It’s all the kids. They pulled together. They understand what it means to be a team,” he said. “We told our seniors that as you move on, remember that feeling, and our underclassmen, that’s what we’ve got to keep going after and keep pushing for.”

Kamehameha coach Abu Ma‘afala and his staff made the best of the circumstances, and their players followed suit. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Ma‘afala remains impressed, though not surprised, at the way the team kept marching forward even while hopes for a normal football season were extinguished by postponement, then cancellation by leagues across Hawaii. Schools were left to get creative and establish their own approaches, establishing layers of protocols.

The players kept working.

“They’re resilient. Kids are resilient. That’s the one thing, right? If you have kids of your own you kind of understand that it’s kind of us as the adults sometimes where we project some of our emotions and feelings, but kids are resilient, man. They bounce back and they take it like champs and they keep pressing forward,” Ma‘afala said. “We’re really excited for kids across the state to be able to do stuff like this.”

Yuen and Smith remember vividly their favorite mantra of Ma‘afala: “No fefe.”

No fear.

“Yeah man. We just try to get that into our boys, on the football field and in life, You’re going to get knocked down sometimes, but you can’t back down. You can’t be scared. You’ve got to get back and keep rolling. Whether you won the last rep or lost the last rep, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t back down,” Ma‘afala said.

After the post-game alma mater, in the midst of festive vibes, for one night, life felt almost normal again. Saint Louis, the entrenched dynasty, showed moments of brilliance and moments of vulnerability as reserves again got on the field early. Kamehameha’s defense and running game made some exceptional plays. Yuen’s mobility and passing touch were difficult to stop at times.

In a season after Saint Louis saw some of its all-time greats graduate, maybe Kamehameha — and Punahou — saw a window of opportunity slip away. Or maybe a night of playing as many players as possible allows for fireworks up and down the field.

“It was great being out there with the boys and being able to have some (scrimmages), especially for the seniors,” said Bianco, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback. “I enjoyed just playing ball again and looking forward to starting up next season in a few weeks.”

Saint Louis running backs coach Tupu Alualu has seen it all as a former standout player and Pop Warner head coach. Training off campus, working within protocols, a team without weight room access — he and his peers adapted and survived.

“Tonight, they don’t feel good, but like I said, it’s football,” Alualu said. “Saint Louis, we’re the best in football, man. We play for the ring. When we have the real season, we’ll be ready.”

Saint Louis assistant coach Tupu Alualu is looking forward to a return to normal offseason training and fall camp. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser

Ron Lee’s first season as Saint Louis’ head coach was the most unique of his 50-year coaching career.

“Being the head coach, that took up some of my time, some administrative (work). Time went by fast because we were so busy,” said Lee, who was a head coach at Kaiser in the late 1970s, but has spent most of his years as an assistant coach at the prep and college levels.

“It was one of the most challenging years in trying to give seniors some playing time, evaluate the young guys we have coming back. There was a lot to accomplish. Making the seniors have some kind of season. I was proud of them. Incorporate the offense and defense, so it was good. We learned a lot,” he said.

The morning after the scrimmage, Lee was back in the football office to watch film.

“We have a good idea, not just with the scrimmages, but with practices as we wrapped it up,” he said.

For better, not worse, the scrimmages played by Saint Louis, Kamehameha and Punahou are now setting the table for prep football in Hawaii.

“We were 100-percent negative with over 100 kids. I don’t know if that says anything,” Lee noted. “I think the schools should talk with Punahou and Kamehameha and Saint Louis about how it was with protocols. ‘Iolani is working out (for an intrasquad scrimmage next week). The club teams, Trench Dawgz and other teams in their (JPS Oahu) league are playing.”

More than a million residents in the islands have been vaccinated, ahead of schedule. No fall sports calendar has been released yet, but Lee believes it is being processed by administrators. He continues to worry about more student-athletes opting for mainland high schools in the coming fall season.

“Don’t wait. Let us know. Let the kids and their families know when we can move forward,” Lee said. “When is pass league? Nobody’s taking charge. Everything has stopped. When do we come back? A lot of parents are already looking to moving to the mainland or sending their kids there for football. They’re not going to sit out another year.”


COMMENTS

  1. ILoveHawaii May 7, 2021 3:31 pm

    October?? They was practicing since October 2020?
    That explains a whole bunch.
    I cannot wait until fall to watch the payback.

    I know that Lulu was doing informal workouts w/ coaches throughout 2020.
    I know that Puns players didnt practice with their coaches until March 2021 since 11/2019. Really.

    Btw, what did you think about that Lulu player bombing in Kamehameha’s pool on the way to the bus?


  2. ??? May 7, 2021 3:53 pm

    St Louis Academy looks good again. What else did we expect?


  3. 808 May 7, 2021 10:43 pm

    @IloveHawaii

    What?? a kid dove in the pool…thats nuts


  4. Trustno1 May 8, 2021 5:45 pm

    C’mon ILoveHawaii- Punahou was practicing like everybody else! You should’ve went to 12 ave Kapaolona Park. How I know? I watching my nephew! GTFOH! Again another crybaby on here! It was only a scrimmage. This was good for the kids! Hoping for a season in the fall! Good luck to all the schools when football starts! 808vsEverybody!


  5. ILoveHawaii May 10, 2021 8:36 am

    Trust-

    The difference is coach led practices or drills.
    Funny tho, I was there at Kapalono park and the only Puns coaches there were those that have sons on the team. And they were either sitting in their car or on the wall watching the seniors lead the practice.
    The other time there were Puns players there? Coach Asai was leading those practices for Pylon prep or his DB academy. No Puns coach.

    No crying here just sharing the extent that some programs go to get an advantage.
    We agree that this was good for the kids and that we hope for a season in the fall.
    I appreciate your response even though its crap.


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