In 2019, Joshua Arcayena was a playmaking sophomore.
The linebacker/running back was active, productive and one of several key contributors to a Pac-Five football squad that went 6-3 in OIA/ILH Division II interleague play.
In ’21, the Wolfpack had to fight to stay alive as a program. The pandemic nearly wiped out a five-decades old conglomerate, but new coach Kena Heffernan, his staff and players kept the fire burning. Now a senior, Arcayena is one of a handful of returnees from that ’19 Wolfpack squad.
“We had a great season (in 2019) and had a great record, too. We’re just trying to build a new program,” Arcayena said. “Now, it’s still great. We do have a lot of new players, but we’re definitely playing with heart out there. We didn’t stop. We didn’t ever quit. We’ll definitely be a team that’s hungry. You’ll never know what’s going to come because we’re going to keep practicing.”
The Wolfpack lost at ‘Iolani, 46-7, on Friday afternoon in Pac-Five’s season opener. Heffernan sees room for improvement in a multitude of ways, but hasn’t forgotten how far his team has come after a challenging offseason.
“The great part for these guys, 80 percent of the guys on the team, it’s the first time they’ve ever played football. Wendell Look, a fantastic coaching staff, our guys playing up a weight class, Division II against Division I,” said Heffernan, the athletic director at Pacific Buddhist Academy and former Punahou player.
‘Iolani was machine-like from start to finish, opening a 24-0 lead after one quarter and a 38-point margin by intermission.
“When we went in for halftime, the consensus was we got nothing to lose. Now you how it feels to be in a real game. Now you how it feels to be on a real (football) field as opposed to playing up at Manoa District Park. Now you know this,” Heffernan said. “They got a little more confidence and started playing. They stopped worrying about it.”
Arcayena and his fellow returnees are taking each moment in stride, the same way their coaches are. That alone is helping their first-time players get more comfortable at practice and even in the heat of an ILH battle.
“A lot of them hadn’t even touched a football or stepped on an actual field before,” Arcayena said. “I can imagine all that energy, butterflies. I still get butterflies before the game. I know that a lot of guys, once you get that first hit, they’re ready to play. We’re just here to play football.”
Every now and then, the offense put together a string of positive plays against a stingy ‘Iolani defense that had shut Damien out the week before. Neivyn Kahoopii, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior, picked up 36 yards on an end-around to the right sideline that sparked the ‘Pack sideline. That led to a one-yard touchdown play by junior quarterback Ezekiel Rodrigues.
One series later, their last of the game, junior Leighton-Moses Kaai hooked up with 6-4 freshman Rome Lilio for a nice 23-yard gain.
Heffernan was happy to see his team get on the board, but he sees the bigger picture for his 36-man squad, even if they’re one of the most inexperienced teams in program history. The Wolfpack played with healthy doses of intensity and humility. Picking up a first down against ‘Iolani drew cheers from the Pac-Five sideline, but their coaches are looking forward to the next practice at Manoa Valley District Park.
“We’ve got to work on our conditioning. There’s a lot to work on. Alignment issues. Assignment issues. There’s a thousand things we’re going to need to work and all that stuff is my fault. Score aside, it was a win. It was a win, it was a win because we were able to play football on this Friday,” Heffernan said. “I’m not sure how long we’re going to be able to do that. As long as we’re able to do it safely, I’ll take in everything as a win.”
Look took over ‘Iolani’s program more than three decades ago. The Raiders adapted and thrived over time.
“Kena’s a positive guy. He’s going to instill those values in them and they’re going to take their lumps, but he’s trying to build his philosophy and his mentality into the program. Kena was a tough son of a gun. He knows what it takes. Things don’t happen overnight. It takes time to change the culture. They’ve got size. They’ve got bodies. So he’ll get it in time,” Look said.
The first-year head coach sees the long game, but celebrates the small victories.
“This team is a team full of winners who are not quitting. They’re making the most of every opportunity they’re getting. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. We’re getting better at playing football. We’re getting better at playing together. Win or lose, we do it together,” he said.
Arcayena and the handful of returnees were in ironman mode, playing both ways and virtually all special teams. The 5-9, 195-pound iron man carried the ball 12 times for a hard-earned 29 yards. Defensively, he and his cohorts in Pac-Five’s front seven made their share of tackles for loss against ‘Iolani’s ground attack. ‘Iolani rushed for 52 yards on 26 carries, relying on their stellar defensive unit and strong kicking game.
“With COVID going on, it’s super unfortunate, but I’m super happy that a lot of us get to play four or five games. Even have a game today. What coach tells us every day is, you never know when we might shut down again. You never know when COVID might hit. We’re just here trying to play our heart out every game, every practice,” he said.
Heffernan expressed his gratitude to the program’s dedicated supporters.
“Thank you for our support staff and parents, everybody who’s out there for supporting your kids and getting them to practice,” he said. “We’ll get back to work on Monday.”
Pac-Five will meet Damien next Saturday.