Ranked No. 5 statewide.
Elite defense. Stellar special teams. Explosive offense even with a third-string QB. The Kamehameha Warriors won’t be part of the state football tournament, not after last night’s 26-23 loss to No. 1 Punahou. Another year, another heartbreak for teams — pick a sport — from the shark tank of ILH athletics.
Kamehameha won’t be the last team to sing the blues this fall. Soon enough, perhaps by next week, another ILH — and state championship — title contender will be eliminated. Saint Louis, ranked No. 2 statewide, needs to beat Punahou for the second-half title, and again in the league’s championship game. Either way, one of the state’s top two teams will not play in the state championships.
It’s never an easy thing to digest, and ever since the public schools of Honolulu left the private entities in 1969, the epic war of haves versus have-nots has continued to thrive in reality and in our imaginations.
Sometimes the drama is tasty. Sometimes, it’s bittersweet. The ILH has continued to prosper, adopting new, small schools over the past 36 years, while the city public schools merged with country schools to form the OIA. Growth was not a problem for the OIA, and though the only new entries for more than a decade have been tiny charter schools, the league is massive and formidable.
It’s enough that when votes go to the general assembly floor on the final day of HIADA, the athletic directors’ annual conference, the OIA holds the most aces. The most votes. And the ILH usually complies. For the past decade, every attempt by various individual administrators to expand the state football tournament to eight teams — the original count — from the current field of six has been voted down.
For all the public clamor to add at least one more ILH team and, in most proposals, one more “at-large” squad, the OIA can’t vote anything down by itself, even with its huge voting bloc. It’s the ILH that has voted in sync with the OIA. The ILH has voted against expanding the state field in football, in effect limiting its state-tourney entries to one team.
The reasons are many, maybe. Or perhaps it simply goes back to a time, the 1960s, when administrators, coaches and communities got fed up with the uneven playing field. The lure of academic and athletic resources. The scholarships, or financial aid. The opportunities for exposure and college scholarships. Especially college scholarships. All of those reasons are alive and well today, even in the OIA, as the plethora of transfers to Kaiser and Mililani showed in recent seasons. And today’s football player has the added bonus of TV exposure in the public-school OIA.
The OIA and its surplus of outstanding coaches has become a lure in itself. The OIA Blue (Division I) was extremely balanced this season. But none of it really compares to the elite level of ILH D-I. On Thursday night, the state’s fifth-ranked team was eliminated from the possibility of state-tournament play. Fans will wonder, as always, about how one of the top five football teams in the islands gets knocked out this early — the OIA playoffs don’t start until today — just because of numbers and ratios. All fans see is talent and the ILH’s crazy abundance of coaching experience.
The appeal of playing in a league this tough — Punahou is No. 1 and Saint Louis is No. 2 — creates a unique ecosystem. Parents and athletes love the challenge. Well, most of them do. Two feet of homework tonight? We want the best for our children. Competing against the best in the ILH is fertile ground for student-athletes and recruiters know this well beyond just football. The same goes with coaching staffs. What Kamehameha’ football team assembled in a short time was one of the finest groups ever, a staff with enormous college experience to support Coach Doug Cosbie.
That’s the place any athlete or coach lives in when he or she willing chooses to compete in the ILH, whether it’s the playing field or classroom. That choice, for Kamehameha, could’ve led to ecstatic championship moments. Instead, they were just a tiny bit short, and the reality of a season about to end — in mid-October — seems like a bad dream. It’s the same every year in nearly every sport for the ILH, but is so much more gut-wrenching in football, with just one D-I state berth.
Given a few more games, a few more weeks, the Warriors could’ve turned out, maybe, to be the most balanced and dangerous of state-tournament teams. It is what it is. Unlike the OIA, where 86 percent of its D-I teams qualify for the playoffs, the ILH is a four-team conference (in D-I). As always, it is cut-throat, cannibalistic and heartbreaking all at the same time. And whoever came up with the ratio system decades ago can rest assured that yes, numbers don’t lie. There will continue to be one ILH participant in the D-I state tournament. Again.
Prep football in 2015 is not entirely different from where it was in those turbulent ’60s. Elite players still gravitate toward the best football programs and schools. The OIA realized that what functioned as normal back then — private schools attracting many of the best athletes — had become part of its ecosystem. The new transfer rule went into effect at the start of the 2015-16 public school academic year to snuff that “virus” out.
But in one way or another, the thirst for football success never ceases. Parents and players will work every angle and find loopholes to work through. Instead of sitting a year, they will move into other districts before their children begin ninth grade. Private schools will continue to enroll student-athletes from the neighbor islands — they are not subject to the one-year sit-out rule. Athletes will repeat a grade at a private middle school to gain an edge academically and physically.
In the end, the OIA, ILH and HHSAA can only do so much. In the end, your neighborhood Pop Warner/Junior League football star can opt to stay home and be a big fish in a small pond. Or he can commute for hours every day to play in what may or may not be a perfectly fair world. One thing is certain: athletics and academics remain a priority for many local families. The quest for enrolling at the most successful programs doesn’t stop. For the most part, the haves — both private and public schools at the top of the food chain — have not said no.
A decade and a half ago, then-OIA chief Dwight Toyama was only half kidding when he said this: with the facilities and resource imbalance between the OIA and ILH, it almost made no sense to compete. If the ILH pushed the wrong buttons, i.e. went overboard with recruiting, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the public schools to create their own state tournament.
From his viewpoint, Toyama was right. From the perspective of any public-school league, why go up against behemoths with seemingly unlimited firepower? (And no district lines.) Different missions for different institutions. Push most decision makers far enough and it becomes a matter of what’s best for me and my people. Survival instinct kicks in. The OIA is doing quite well with the structure as is. Aside from the ILH, there is no real incentive for any league to expand the state football tournament.
The ILH needs the OIA. There will be no private-school state tournaments. The OIA doesn’t really, really need the ILH. There will be no joining of hands between the state’s most talented football leagues except to continue the truce. Change is not coming. Probably not.