BIIF football: Waiakea grad Azevedo out to revive pride for winless Warriors

TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Waiakea gang-tackles Keaau's Dylan Waltjen last season.

Waiakea has hired Neil Azevedo, one of its old stars, to flip the fortunes of the football program, which finished 1-9 overall and 0-7 in BIIF play last season.

“I just want to bring back that pride and spirit of being a Warrior and want them to bring more fight to the game and love for the school,” said Azevedo, a 1987 Waiakea graduate and linebacker.

His coach back then was Harry Kim. Azevedo, a four-year starter, was a Hilo assistant in 1993, sat out a year and was an assistant at Waiakea for five years.

That 1999 season was Azevedo’s last time on the BIIF level. He later coached youth baseball and basketball.

He’s a county Highways division chief and ends his work shift at 3 p.m., so he has convenient working hours to coach.

Azevedo said he’s watched a half-dozen games every year, so he’s not flying into the program blind.

Besides some knowledge on player personnel, he knows what success feels like, back when Azevedo was part of Waiakea’s glory days.

From 1994 to ’97, the Warriors won BIIF titles under old coach Tim Lino, who was big on weight room commitment and emphasized team speed in all three phases (offense, defense, and special teams).

The team co-shared the title with Konawaena in 2001 but represented the league at the HHSAA tournament due to a head-to-head tiebreaker.

Then the Warriors fell from the mountaintop and have struggled to find their footing.

Last season, Waiakea finished winless for the first time in the league since joining the BIIF in 1978.

From 2011 to ’15, the Warriors advanced to the BIIF semifinals but lost each time. In 2016, the semifinals were eliminated and the top two Division I teams advanced to the championship.

That year, Hilo crushed Waiakea 40-3 for the BIIF title. The Vikings not only won their fourth straight title but also cemented their status as one of the greatest turnarounds in league history.

In 2011, the Vikings finished winless in the league, but the next year they were in the BIIF championship but lost to Kealakehe.

In 1998, Hawaii was 0-12 under Fred von Appen, and June Jones rode to the rescue the next year, changed the culture as well as the offense and went 9-4 for a share of the WAC championship.

Major rebound seasons do happen, but it’ll be a formidable challenge at Waiakea, which graduates about a dozen starters, from all parts of the field.

“Now, it’s building the boys up. Winning will come,” Azevedo said. “The main thing is changing their lifestyles, making them better people. That’s what coaching is about.”

If there’s an NFL personality profile comparison, Azevedo doesn’t fall anywhere near Bill Belichick, football’s resident Oscar the Grouch.

“I’d rather kids play more than one sport, three or four if they can,” Azevedo said. “During the offseason in the weight room, if they come, they’ll come. I just want them to have fun, work out to get strong, go run and have them love the game.”

As far as technical stuff on offense, defense, and special teams, Azevedo spoke more about style of play.

“On offense, we’ll open it up big-time. The kids are going to have a blast,” he said. “On defense, I’ve been stuck with a 4-3 front, and I’m a gambler. The kids are going to have a blast. On special teams, we’ll make it exciting for the guys. It’s going to be fun.”

The comparisons to crosstown rival Hilo are unavoidable, especially with Waiakea starting from the same last-place path.

One reason the Vikings have won five straight BIIF titles and defeated Damien for the Division I state crown — the league’s first at any division — is they block and tackle better than opponents, even if they’re bigger.

It’ll get harder for the BIIF to win a second one.

On Wednesday, the OIA and ILH announced they’ll play an interleague schedule of nonleague games for 2018 and ’19.

In the Open division, it’s Campbell, Farrington, Kahuku, Kapolei, Mililani, and Waianae from the OIA, and Kamehameha, Punahou, and Saint Louis from the ILH.

In Division I, it’s Aiea, Castle, Kailua, Leilehua, Moanalua, Radford, Nanakuli, and Waipahu from the OIA, and Damien and Saint Francis from the ILH.

In Division II, it’s Kaimuki, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Kalani, McKinley, Pearl City, Roosevelt, and Waialua from the OIA, and Iolani and Pac-5 from the ILH.

The OIA and ILH will sharpen themselves playing against each other. Also, the OIA will have either one or two Division I state berths next season.

Before the Warriors can think about such lofty state dreams, they’ll go back to the basics.

They’ll start weight training next month, followed by spring training after the state baseball tournament and later two weeks of summer fun (weight lifting, agility drills, and conditioning).

“We’re going to focus on the basics,” Azevedo said. “For blocking, you have to move your feet. If we tackle someone with your head down, I’m pulling them out of the game. The right way is at the waist with the head up.

“Everybody in the league has got talent. I want our guys to go out there and have fun. It’s how you treat them with respect, and they’ll go hard for you, and we’ll go far.”