Hiilawe Manoi doesn’t want to just be one of the boys. She wants to be better than them.
“I am a girl and people make sure to point that out, but on the field I want to be known as a football player,” Manoi said. “Being a girl does not affect my ability to play the sport.”
Manoi is a key player on the Kealakehe junior varsity squad, starting at outside linebacker and also seeing time at running back. Her play warrants the distinction.
“There are a lot of stories,” she laughed. “They usually don’t know I’m a girl. They usually find out after the game and they are tripping because they didn’t know.”
Manoi is one of a handful of girls around the league playing football.
The journey started when Manoi joined the West Side Eagles Pop Warner squad as a 9-year-old, but she didn’t get to strap on the pads before a grueling year as a cheerleader with her older sister, Alycia-Raine Manoi.
“Hiilawe wanted to play football so bad, but her mom told her she had to support her sister and be a cheerleader for one year,” said Hiilawe’s father, Eddie Manoi. “I’ll always remember the first day of cheer practice all the cheerleaders were going in one direction and she ran off with the boys toward football practice. It was torture for her, but she got through it.”
While Hiilawe eventually got her wish to suit up in pads and a helmet, it took a while for her to adjust to life on the gridiron.
“When I started playing it was hard,” Hiilawe said. “I didn’t know how to hit, or take the hit. I would cry. But then one of the players took me aside and taught me how to hit and be a football player. It was just getting the rhythm and having confidence to do it right.”
Manoi has been doing something right. At Kealakehe football games, her rabid fan base has given her nicknames including Beast, Banger and Hurricane.
She also plays rugby in the offseason with the Kona Bulls.
Her coaches now embrace her talent and have the confidence to give her the ball on the goal line or hold down an outside linebacker spot. However, Manoi had to go the extra yard to earn her spot on the depth chart.
“I think at first, the coaches though of her just as a girl and didn’t think she had what it took to be a football player,” Eddie said. “I talked to the coaches and asked for a fair shot. At the end of the day, it’s still football. It shouldn’t matter if she is a girl or not. She works hard to be where she is at.”
Kealakehe JV head coach Shawn Akana had nothing but praise for Manoi.
“She can play. She always brings it and plays with big-time heart,” Akana said. “I’ll give any girl props who plays this game. She goes all out.”
Akana said Manoi reminds him of his niece, Tanalei Louis. Louis is now wrestling at Oklahoma City University, but Manoi said they both played football together in Pop Warner and Louis was a great mentor.
Hiilawe’s parents had to get used to the idea of their daughter playing high school football, but they were quick to get on board.
“Pop Warner was one thing, but when I found out she wanted to play high school football it was a different story,” mother Paris Hiilawe said. “We knew there would be bigger boys and it was the next level of competition. But we are a family that is very supportive and are behind our kids to get them where they wanted to be.”
“I always tell her don’t ever let anyone take the wind out of your sails — even us,” Eddie added.
As a junior, Manoi opted to play on the JV squad because she felt she could be more of a contributor. The Big Island Interscholastic Federation rule that allows juniors to play on junior varsity teams of any sport was implemented last year.
Seniors, however, still are not allowed to play JV, so Manoi will have to be a full-time player on the varsity her final season. It shouldn’t be much of a hurdle though. Manoi played the final two games of her sophomore season with the varsity, and Akana said her teammates will welcome her with open arms.
“Next year might take some adjustments, but that team is the one she played JV with,” Akana said. “They will welcome her, no matter what.”
As for life after high school, Manoi is setting the bar high.
“I want to play college rugby at Notre Dame and I want to be on the 2016 Olympic rugby team,” she said. “If that does not work out, I want to be a doctor.”
Manoi said football is not in her post-high school plans because there has not been a history of girls playing at the college level.
“She is so driven, nothing really phases her,” Eddie Manoi said. “She speaks for herself as being an athlete. She is very driven and will excel in any sport, and her high drive applies to academics as well. We feel like whatever path she ends up choosing, she will go far.”