A year ago, Ka‘u athletic director Kalei Namohala and head coach DuWayne Ke took stock of their football program.
The Trojans had historically struggled to compete with the bigger schools on the island, and with only 18 kids consistently coming out to practice, Namohala decided to inform league officials that Ka‘u would not field a football team.
“When I had to give our kids the bad news about not having an 11-man team, they, and the coaches, were crushed,” Namohala said.
However, out of that initial disappointment, a groundbreaking opportunity formed.
Last season, Ka‘u became the first school on the island to field a full-time eight-man squad. The Trojans played six games, two against Maui Interscholastic League opponents Seabury Hall and Molokai, and home-and-home series with the Kealakehe and Kamehameha junior varsity teams.
“The selling point for our kids was, one, you still get to play football, contact to contact. Some of them thought it was flag football,” Namohala said. “Two, you’re the first — pioneers of the sport. You’re making history by being the first BIIF school to have an eight-man football team.”
Namohala said playing Seabury Hall early in the year — which had competed in eight-man football in 2012 — was the luckiest draw for Ka‘u, and helped start the program on the right foot.
“That Seabury Hall game sold our coaches. They were so excited how well our kids did,” Namohala said. “They saw that it was a faster game, that they couldn’t hide anyone and that it gauged how much our kids had learned and how much more they needed to learn.
“I believe it gave them confidence seeing that they could compete in eight-man. Seabury Hall players had told them after the game that they’ve never been hit so hard before, so that boosted their egos. Scoring in 11-man was always challenging for us, but we were able to put numbers up on the board in eight-man. That helps moral and keeps the kids engaged.”
The Spartans won that game 31-20; the Trojans get a shot at redemption when they travel to Maui to face Seabury Hall on Sept. 5.
This year Pahoa and Kohala will also field eight-man teams.
It will be the first time in nearly a dozen years Pahoa will see action on the gridiron. For Kohala, it brings the sport back to a passionate community that embraces their high school teams and athletes with fierce loyalty.
While eight-man football has carved out its niche on the Big Island, and looks to have a bright future, Namohala said she thinks it may take some time for the rest of the state to catch on. Until a third league commits to an eight-man focus, the sport will not have an official state championship.
“I don’t see an official eight-man state championship in the near future until the OIA (Oahu Interscholastic Association) or ILH (Interscholastic League of Honolulu) comes in. It’s a hard sell because most of the schools are so into the traditional, 11-man football,” Namohala said. “The ILH voted down the idea of creating an eight-man league last year because only a couple of schools showed interest, so it was not enough to form a league. They will look into it maybe in a couple of years again, hopefully.”
Namohala said she has spoken with the MIL coordinator to create a champion vs. champion postseason matchup, but the idea is still in its infancy and will need to be revisited.
“I’m glad that we got to do eight-man last year,” Namohala said. “I’m so proud of our kids, coaches and community that embraced it. I believe in helping our students succeed in life through whatever positive means available and within our limitations.”