There’s nothing quite like the smell of synthetic turf, rubber granules and Baden footballs in the air.
When practice resumed at Alexander Field on Monday, seniors Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen and Kahanu Kia had all their prayers answered.
“It’s just good to be back, be on the field, smell it again. It was nice. I was a beautiful day just playing football, seeing my teammates,” said Kia, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker.
At Kalaepohaku, Saint Louis is in new-normal mode. In other words, the Crusaders have been working out for the past month-plus, two days per week. No helmets. No pads. Just the usual repetitions under the watchful eyes of head coach Ron Lee and staff.
“We’ve been working hard the past couple of months just doing our best with what we’ve got and what we can do,” junior quarterback AJ Bianco said. “I feel like everyone’s excited and eager to play.”
The workouts will be measured and treasured, particularly by seniors. There is also a tentative schedule of scrimmages, confirmed by Saint Louis Coach Ron Lee and Punahou interim coach Leonard Lau.
>> Apr. 17, Saint Louis at Kamehameha
>> Apr. 24, Punahou at Kamehameha
>> May 1, Saint Louis at Punahou
There is a possibility of another scrimmage for Saint Louis and Kamehameha at an undetermined site. All of this requires a number of approvals, as well as a clean bill of health. Basketball and soccer exhibitions by private schools held up well, but the challenge in football is like no other sport simply because of numbers.
The COVID-19 pandemic tore the sports calendar to shreds, but players across the state put in daily work for the past year. Mendiola-Jensen wound up receiving more than 20 scholarship offers and signed with UNLV.
Kia signed with Notre Dame. Therein lies the rub, of course. With private schools like Punahou, Kamehameha and Saint Louis ready to square off in non-league scrimmages this spring — official ILH football was postponed last fall and cancelled in January — recruits are in a dilemma. By the time spring-season action ends in mid-May, these seniors will be just one month away from summer training for their respective universities. For now, life is day to day. Seniors are just savoring the moment before scrimmages begin sometime in April.
“I feel amazing. Really missed playing on the field. I don’t get to see all my boys in school, so this is an awesome way to start it off,” Mendiola-Jensen said.
The last time Punahou had an official football practice was in November of 2019.
“Today was more of a conditioning day. We warmed up, stretched and did some running mechanics drills. Went through linear movements and we got into some positional drills,” he said. “They set us into different cohort groups. Offensive skills, defensive skills, linemen.”
Basic protocols were in play. Masks. Sanitizing. Pods. The athletes have adapted to the new normal. They’re already looking forward to the next stage.
“The first two weeks are a kick starter to actual practice. Half of the time we’re on the field for 45 minutes, then half in the weight room for 45 more minutes. The weight room is pretty much normal, but everyone is spread out more. They spray everything,” Mendiola-Jensen noted. “In two weeks, we put on helmets, then slowly put on pads.”
When the scrimmages begin, it will take an awful lot of willpower to stay off the field.
“I’m still not sure. It would kill me not to play once we have games, I’m pretty sure,” he said.
The rough schedule has scrimmages, not games, listed.
“I think we can definitely make it happen. We’ll do what we can do. We’ll just see,” he said.
Like Mendiola-Jensen, Kia was part of a stellar defensive unit in 2019. Neither was highly recruited until the offseason, when their connections with coaches and exposure through social media and emailed videos — of game highlights, personal workouts and offseason combines and tournaments — made a big impact.
Kia is also 35 pounds bigger and stronger than he was when junior season ended. That’s what a 17-month offseason can look like for a high school student-athlete.
“I started (junior year) at barely 200 pounds soaking wet. I was 185 at the end,” he recalled.
Before he lands in South Bend, Ind., and transitions to life next to “Touchdown Jesus,” Kia is embracing the present.
“It’s be a final experience for seniors. Also, in a way, it’s like spring ball for the younger guys who still have a season to play,” he said.
Practicing is the journey. The seniors just want to enjoy the ride. But what happens when Saint Louis and Kamehameha are on the other sideline?
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really know where I stand right now. I still have to talk to my coaches at Notre Dame and see how they feel. If I get the green light, I’m excited to play some football,” Kia said.
“Our first practice was today and it’s nothing like what we normally do, but it felt good to be on the field with the boys. It’s hard because it’s too late, really, for seniors to get film, so that’s out the window. But it’s a final chance to get your senior football experience,” he said.
Bianco just completed a rigorous exhibition basketball season with the Crusaders. The hoopsters practiced on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so he squeezed in football workouts when possible. Even now, the program is not quite in pre-competition mode, when workouts on the field were daily. On a scale of 0 to 10, Bianco says the current chemistry of the offense is in the middle.
“That’s a tough question. I’d say were right around the middle just because we’re only going two days a week. We’re definitely getting better and building chemistry between the quarterbacks and receivers, but there’s a lot of room for us to grow, I’m sure,” he said.
Bianco has scholarship offers from Hawaii, Nebraska and Washington State. He is competing with senior Connor Apo and sophomore Kekahi Graham for the starting job. The depth chart is a surplus of riches for the four-time defending state champions. If Coach Ron Lee and other coaches have their way, the Open Division teams — Kamehameha, Punahou and Saint Louis — will have split squads that would be free to play Division I programs Damien and ‘Iolani.
“As long as the kids get to play, that’s the important thing,” ‘Iolani Coach Wendell Look said.
Saint Louis has a core of new starters at slotback and wide receiver.
“We lost a lot of seniors from last year,” said Bianco, who is 6-4 and 220 pounds. “We’ve got a whole new set of guys at the receiver position. Keanu Wallace, Makena Ramos, Trech Kekahuna, Jayson de Laura and Prince Solomon. That’s kind of the first five right now. Those guys are going to have a big year.”
Dave Reardon contributed to this article.