After its first losing season in more than a decade, and with veteran head coach Sam Papalii stepping down, the Kealakehe football program was in need of a fresh start and a new direction.
This week, Kealakehe athletic director Mike Hernandez announced current boys basketball head coach and faculty member Sam Kekuaokalani will take over the Waverider football team, becoming the fifth head coach in school history.
“I’m very thankful that principal (Wilfred) Murakami and Mike Hernandez support me and chose me for the position,” Kekuaokalani said. “I’d really like to embrace all the good we have at the school and I really appreciate what all the coaches before did to build this program up. What I’d like to do is continue to build on the tradition. I’m excited and really want to get things rolling.”
Kekuaokalani has been a fixture on the Kealakehe campus since arriving in 1999. Affectionately known as “Coach K” by students, Kekuaokalani is hoping to revitalize the program after a down year.
“He has a great rapport with the kids and they respond very well to him,” Hernandez said. “We expect to have a lot of kids out because he runs an excellent strength and conditioning program year-round.”
It is not Kekuaokalani’s first time at the helm of the football program. After former coach Gary Clark took a leave of absence in 2011, Kekuaokalani served as the interim head coach, leading Kealakehe to the Division I BIIF title and garnering Coach of the Year recognition.
But that team was built to win, having won the BIIF title the previous two seasons.
“This time around it will be harder, but I think I have more help,” Kekuaokalani said. “Nowadays coaching is a lot different. The style of commanding can still be there, but the approach has to be a little different. We have a very young team, and will lose some key seniors, but the students are pretty good at being resilient to change. I’d like to create more of a family atmosphere.”
As head basketball and football coach, Kekuaokalani will have to perform a difficult balancing act.
“I think he will have to make a decision to concentrate on one sport,” Hernandez said. “Football will take a lot of time. When the season comes to an end, you give the kids some rest, let them go out for the winter and spring sports if they want. But before you know it everyone is back in the weight room and it is time for spring practices. I think if he does decide to do both, one sport or possibly both could suffer.”
Kekuaokalani is optimistic that he can handle double-duty.
“I think next year may be similar to the situation I had when I was interim head coach. It worked out pretty good,” Kekuaokalani said. “The expectation here, of course, is to be successful. In both sports, we expect to win the BIIF and expect to go into states and do well.”
Kekuaokalani has some time to ponder the choices in front of him, but is thankful for the opportunities and the people who made it possible.
“I did have some reservations initially, but my wife was the one who encouraged me the most to go for it,” Kekuaokalani said. “My kids get excited when I coach and love to be a part of whatever it is I’m in, and my wife is the reason why I can do what I do.”
Away from the chalkboards and depth charts, Kekuaokalani has other commitments. He serves as the Kona 2nd Ward bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In that role, Kekuaokalani is responsible for establishing goals, providing training and managing the activities of more than 100 volunteers.
“It is another big responsibility,” Kekuaokalani said. “There is no way I would be able to do it without the help of not only my wife, but also my heavenly Father. A lot of what I do is because of those two people.”