This weekend’s neighbor-island heavy slate of state tournament football games can stir up a lot of nostalgia for veteran coaches.
State tournament previews
Open Division: Punahou vs. Mililani, Kahuku vs. Campbell
Division I: Aiea at Konawaena
Division I: Waipahu at ‘Iolani
Division II: Waimea at Honokaa
Division II: Nanakuli at King Kekaulike
Waimea is in the state tournament for the first time in ages. Kahuku fans may remember when their team took on the KIF champions nearly two decades ago in a game that stayed fairly close most of the way.
Back then, Jon Kobayashi was the coach and mastermind as the Menehune scrapped and clawed and quick-kicked its way to stay competitive with the Goliath program from the North Shore. This season, Waimea is the KIF’s Division II representative in the state championships. After a 48-7 rout of OIA runner-up Kaiser last week, Waimea went back to work, dunking footballs in water.
Why? Coach Kyle Linoz is a planner. He knows that when it rains in Honokaa, the torrent can be engulfing. Even horizontal. Right now, the weather forecast calls for temperatures in the 70s with wind at 16 mph. Rain? Chance of precipitation is a modest 14 percent.
Linoz is taking no chances.
“We’ve been dunking our footballs in five-gallon buckets of water. Catching, handing off, passing with wet footballs, getting ready,” Linoz said. “Just in case.”
On paper, Waimea was the smaller team when it battled eventual KIF champion Kapaa three times in league play. Waimea won once, lost the other two games 7-3 and 3-0. They were that close to becoming outright league champs.
Against Honokaa, however, it is the home team that is much smaller. Longtime coach Fred Lau Sr. says his team was the smallest in size and number in the BIIF. Pahoa and Ka‘u are thriving today with close to 50 players. So Waimea should have the physical advantage in the trenches, and if the skies empty with plenty of rain, that would become a certain game-changing factor for the Menehune, who don’t get a lot of it on the West side of Kauai.
It will be a first for Honokaa, a state-tournament football game on campus. The Dragons won the BIIF in 2009 and were not able to host the game with Farrington because Honokaa’s field did not have viable seating. It took 11 years, but a 900-seat bleacher area was completed in 2020.
That replaced a hill that ran along the mauka sideline. Spectators would park their trucks and watch the game from above. Now, fans can sit comfortably on aluminum bleachers that have a covering above.
Waimea had that same experience last weekend, hosting a state-tourney game at Hanapepe Stadium. The community embraced it.
“This is great for us. Our island is buzzing,” Linoz said.
With Kapaa out of the D-I state tourney after a 49-41 loss at Waipahu, Waimea is the Garden Island’s last hope. The football program is enjoying the moment, much as it. did back in the day when Jordan Dizon was a stud two-way player. Dizon went on to play at Colorado.
Kapaa stayed overnight at Waipahu’s gym following the game last weekend. Waimea will get a treat, staying overnight in a Hilo hotel.
“Coach Jon took care of the reservations,” Linoz said of Waimea’s coach-turned-athletic director. “He’s the best.”
Lau has been a coach at Honokaa for a combined 22 years. He was there in the 1980s when Shane Bell was the quarterback for a championship team, towering over his offensive line. The team had 17 players.
In ’94, Honokaa started 0-2 and seemed destined for a disappointing season, but the Dragons moved uber-talented Davin “Taich” Alip to QB. With Fred Lau Jr. at running back and future UH offensive lineman Kaulana Noa up front, the Dragons veered into a new direction and finished the season strong.
This was the era of single-division football, no state tournaments, and neighbor-island champions meeting in the Neighbor Island Football Classic every postseason. The most memorable Honokaa nickname during the 1990s: Baba “Hurricane” Ignacio, a 250-pound running back.
In ’09, Lau was back at Honokaa and won the BIIF title with Sage Johnson leading the way. That was the year Honokaa was unable to host a state-tourney game, and the community pushed for bleachers at the home field.
Lau returned once again to Honokaa in 2019.
“This is a good group. Every once in awhile, the talent is there,” he said. “2009 was like this.”
Check out today’s Star-Advertiser for the full prep football preview on the Open Division, Division I and Division II.