As Nanakuli’s seniors savored a few more moments on the field, Kili Watson’s thoughts were already drifting toward the future.
Watson saw his first season as Nanakuli’s head coach end Friday night with a 36-0 loss to Kapolei in the regular-season finale for both teams.
After Kapolei secured the final berth in the OIA Division I playoffs, Nanakuli celebrated senior night with a heartfelt postgame ceremony punctuated by recorded messages from the senior’s parents.
“I’ve seen tremendous growth from our team, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally,” said Watson, not that far removed from his own senior night as a 2011 Kamehameha graduate.
“The resilience was always there from the start. It’s something the kids from our Nanakuli community are kind of known for. They’re known for their resilience and hard work and commitment.
“I tell them all the time I wouldn’t have wanted to have my first season with any other group. Despite the record, this was an exciting season. It was a roller coaster filled with ups and downs. I loved it.”
The Golden Hawks opened the regular season with a 12-7 win at Aiea, dropped their next five games in a tough OIA Red schedule, but still entered the final week of the season with a shot at the postseason.
Although the season will go into the books at 1-7 overall and 1-6 in the OIA Red, Watson pointed to other significant victories along the way.
“People often overlook the success our program has off the field,” he said. “On average, about 90 percent of our football boys are on the principal’s list. We’re sending kids off to college … they’re furthering their education. That’s what I’m here for. I’m trying to develop our future community leaders.”
On the field, Nanakuli opened Friday’s game by stopping Kapolei’s opening drive at the Golden Hawks’ 4. But the offense, playing without injured quarterback Nahum Kipi, struggled to gain traction and Kapolei surged to a 21-0 halftime lead.
“It’s no secret. Kapolei has athletes, they have weapons everywhere,” Watson said. “From quarterback to running back out to their slots and wideouts. You stop their run game, which they established early, and you fall right into their trap with the quick game out to the flats. They did a tremendous job.”
Junior Clyde Enos stepped in to start at quarterback against a fearsome Kapolei front seven. Sophomore Kaipo Burnett, just up from the JV, completed two passes and scrambled for a first down on the game’s final possession. Low numbers for Nanakuli forced the cancellation of the JV game and Watson pulled up several sophomores for the varsity finale.
“We’re one program, the transition was smooth. They practice together already,” Watson said.
“I told them, ‘you guys are going to step on that field tonight, it’s going to be a different atmosphere.’ It’s not a hot afternoon. At night under the lights it’s a totally different feeling. I was glad I was able to get some of them in.”
Kipi is among the sophomores slated to return and the youth coming up in the program had Watson thinking about building on this year’s experience just minutes after the final seconds elapsed on the season.
In the OIA’s current setup, Nanakuli would likely be headed for Division II next year with the end of the league’s two-year cycle. The Golden Hawks went 17-4 in D-II in 2014 and ’15, moved up to D-I and finished 1-15 over the last two years. They could be among the programs most affected by possible offseason changes to the OIA’s system.
“I’m always excited to move forward,” he said. “I always try to keep that mind-set so I’m looking forward to next year. … This season has definitely a learning experience. I loved it though.”