The state of football remains unsettled for Hawaii’s high school players and teams.
The lack of activity for football programs and players since the fall of 2019 could mean tough decisions are close at hand for athletes and their families this spring. There could be many more ready to transfer to the mainland to ensure a senior football season.
Private-school football programs on Oahu are close to engaging in scrimmages and games on a limited, exhibition basis this spring. Saint Louis will visit Kamehameha on Apr. 17, sans spectators. Two weeks later, the Crusaders will play at Punahou.
At last check, former Kamehameha football player Tausili Akana was uncertain about where he will spend his junior year. He was at Kamehameha as a freshman, moved to Utah and played for Wasatch as a sophomore. With more than a dozen football scholarship offers, he is currently enrolled at Kahuku.
For Akana and many more players, spring football preparation is a key element to becoming acclimated to any program. This is why, for some families, decisions may be made sooner rather than later, particularly with no clear path for public school football in the coming fall season.
Meanwhile, at Moanalua, spring sports as well as training for football are co-existing.
“We’ve been on campus in football pods already. This will be the start of the fifth week for us,” Moanalua Coach Vince Nihipali said on Tuesday. “Keeping our numbers down per guideline, splitting the groups accordingly. Bigs go first session, 1.25 hours and skills go second session, 1.25 hours. COVID protocols, kids screened and temp checked prior to participation.”
Coaches have been adjusting as well as their student-athletes, it appears, both on the field and in the weight room. Not all schools have opened weight rooms.
“We’re able to go outside,” Saint Louis Coach Ron Lee said on Tuesday. “We send a lot of our kids to Mike Lafaele’s gym. Opening our weight room would require a lot of supervision, wipe everything down. It takes a lot of manpower. I’m hoping to open it soon.”
Moanalua utilizes its weight room and field by staying in small numbers.
“It’s all about planning and working that plan,” Nihipali said. “It’s tedious and cumbersome, but it’s been great for the kids. Work on that time frame in its specific small groups. We don’t use the weight room much, but we’ve been doing the bigs in there in their small groups. A lot of cleaning and sanitizing.”
The other challenge is simple numbers. Normally, football will use part of the field, if not all, when spring sports are inactive.
“Spring sports have priority, but I’ve been able to get in there with our ‘ohana pods’,” Nihipali said.
Spring sports are off to a good start across public schools statewide. The Oahu Interscholastic Association hasn’t officially released its regular season-only baseball and softball schedules, but at least one high school has posted its game sites and times online.
OIA golf has been underway for a few weeks.
The private-school Interscholastic League of Honolulu has been active with softball and volleyball — girls and boys — in the past couple of weeks without a hiccup. No spectators allowed, and all events are streamed live online.
A major key, more so than ever, has been preparation on the part of trainers — if administrators are willing to weigh the risks and benefits.
“To each his own, I guess. I can’t speak for other schools or coaches, but I can say that we have had the utmost support from our administration and athletic department,” Nihipali said. “I understand that spring sports has an actual season, which is exciting, and everyone else will benefit with the success of spring sports. I’m sure there are reasons why some have chosen to start or not start up.”
Lahainaluna co-head coach Dean Rickard sees the breadth and depth of the pandemic up close in his role with the Maui Police Department.
“For us here on Maui, nothing has changed and we are just waiting for the green light to proceed with spring football training. After one year of basically no football whatsoever, spring training becomes more important to reconnect with our players and get back to quality organized practices in preparation for the upcoming 2021 season,” Coach Rickard said. “Of course, the UH football situation doesn’t help either.”
The program at Hawaii halted workouts earlier in the week due to concerns about health and safety.
Kahuku Coach Sterling Carvalho has seen the departure of several players to the mainland.
“We are hopeful that there will be some type of training soon. It is important that we start soon, not just to get our players training and preparing for the upcoming season, but to give hope and instill faith in the players that a season will happen,” Carvalho said.
With Hawaii nearing 700,000 vaccinations, and a goal of 800,000 by May 1, per Lt. Gov. Josh Green, there is clear reason for optimism. Lee, the longtime coach, warned about the lack of discussion at higher levels regarding high school sports dating back to the spring of 2020 when the pandemic began.
“I’ve been asking our athletic directors if we should really start getting ready, not do it the same way. We should have a target date in June or July. Don’t wait, and next thing not have an idea and plan,” Lee said. “Especially in public schools, kids are all over the place. It’s time to organize and get them ready for next season. This year is done. When are we going to talk about it? Nobody’s talking about it.”
The DOE and public-school leagues made it a point of emphasis to ensure that spring sports wouldn’t lose a season for a second year in a row. Nationally, 90 percent of states have played most or all fall sports, whether during the fall, winter or current spring season.
“My experience watching this past year transpire is it was terrible,” Lee added. “They kick it down the road, kick it down the road, kick it down the road.”
Saint Louis football has been on the field twice per week, sometimes three times, for the past few months.
“We’ve been practicing and we have these scrimmages for these seniors to have some kind of season,” Lee said. “We end this (scrimmage season) in May. Normally, everybody’s getting ready for spring football in May, June. The public schools are worse off than us. We need to find out what the plan is. I talked to some of the OIA coaches and they really don’t know. They can’t find their kids, so it’s ridiculous.”
Many public-school football players are gravitating to club teams, working out on and off the field daily. MBC recently played two games in Southern California. Trench Dawgz saw its showcase with Winner Circle Athletics cancelled — or forfeited — when California reversed field under pressure from a parents-group lawsuit and allowed football season in the spring.
A recent tri-scrimmage between Trench Dawgz, MBC and Millville Trojans was the closest thing to a full-contact high school football game on Oahu in ages. Trench Dawgz will travel to Las Vegas in two weeks to play Sin City Legendz, a Nevada club team coached by former Hawaii and Roosevelt standout Chad Kapanui.
There was interest from some public school teams in playing 7v7 games with Saint Louis.
“A lot of them wanted to play, but (OIA) coaches cancelled because their kids are playing at Pylons,” Lee noted.
Club football fills a void in the offseason, but Lee is disappointed about the lack of overall progress for prep football.
“We’re back to where we were, waiting for the word, and that hurts the kids,” he said. “I worry about that, getting kids prepared for college. One good thing about (Mayor Rick) Blangiardi is he takes a stand. I think he’ll fight. I think he’ll do the right thing. That’s what I like about him. We open up, the numbers go up, we have to live with that and get the economy going. I think Blangiardi works better with the governor.”
On Monday, Mayor Blangiardi said he was “dead set” against Oahu moving back to Tier 2 from its current status of Tier 3. On Tuesday, he sent a request to Gov. David Ige to change the criteria that determines tiers.
Prior to the ILH’s January cancellation of football season, there was some thought about creating split squads to provide more game action for bigger programs and the league’s smaller programs.
“Our ‘B’ team was going to play with ‘Iolani and Damien, but all of a sudden Damien dropped out and ‘Iolani dropped out,” Lee said. “We have some seniors who have a shot at college. We’ll help them get (footage). With the colleges letting athletes have another year (of eligibility), that really makes it tough.”
Lee believes the final two weeks of May would be ideal for public-school football programs to get back on the field.
“Maybe May 15, have spring ball for two weeks or five days just so they can condition and get their kids together,” he said. The coaches need to be told that they can have spring practice in May, at least let them know what they can start doing.”
A different time. A different mentality.
“When I first started coaching in ’68, we had athletic directors that were also coaches. Alex Kane. Larry Ginoza. Johnny Velasco. Hugh Yoshida. They looked out for the athletes and coaches. Now, you can’t be coaches as athletic directors, and they don’t understand. I saw how they did it. I learned a lot from all those guys. They were unbelievable,” Lee said. “They ran athletics during those times with (former OIA executive director) Billy Smythe, tough Ted Fukushima, and my AD. They were tough how they ran athletics. Now, nobody looks out for the kids.”
There was no pandemic back then, though. Lee has searched for a morsel of optimism in the past year, and found little from those in charge of prep sports — whether it was truly their call or not. He is still stunned by the ILH’s decision to cancel football, noting the 8-1 vote — by the league’s “board of nine” — with the lone vote in favor of playing cast by Saint Louis.
“You take the job as AD or head coach, you have to take everything that goes with that. The kids and the program as the priority for your decisions, you believe in what is right, you go for it,” he said. “Don’t kick it down the road, pass the buck. I’m lucky I’m at Saint Louis. We’re trying to do our best.”