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Out of the coffee fields, on to the gridiron: Konawaena celebrates 50 years of football

  • Rick Winters/West Hawaii Today
    Former Konawaena coaches Roy Aukai, Earl Crozier and Jim Barry meet current Wildcat coaches while being honored at halftime of a game against Hilo in 2015.

KEALAKEKUA — Dennis Balucan can still remember his initial reaction when he heard Konawaena would be fielding a football team.

“What is that?” Balucan, a 1969 Konawaena graduate, recalled. “Most of us didn’t even know what football was. We were starting from scratch.”

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It was 50 years ago today — Sept. 14, 1968 — that the Wildcats suited up for their first football game after more than three decades of being on the coffee schedule.

Konawaena played Ka‘u in that first contest, a game the Wildcats would go on to lose 33-6. The historic moment, however, was a launching pad for the storied program that has became ingrained in the culture in Kealakekua.

Under the guidance of legendary coach Earl Crozier, the Wildcats won their first BIIF title just two seasons later in 1970. They have been the most successful program on the island since, winning 23 BIIF titles in all, including a string of 11 straight from 1980-90 — the longest streak of dominance the league has seen.

Balucan was quick study, too. He would go on to amass 1,400 total yards in the Wildcats’ inaugural season in the BIIF, which the team finished 2-8 — both of its wins coming against Honokaa.

“It was strange at first, but we picked it up pretty quick,” said Balucan, who also participated in track and a bit of basketball growing up. “It was hard work — harder than I ever thought it would be.”

The original team of Wildcats from the class of 1969 will be honored Friday night during Konawaena’s homecoming against Waiakea. Multiple members from that team will be on hand for the festivities, as well as coach Crozier.

“The Hawaiians have an ‘ōlelo no‘eau(wise saying): I ka wa mamua, ka wa mahope — the future is in the past,” said Nellie Medeiros, a former songleader for the Wildcats and a member of the class of ‘69 who has helped organize the festivities. “It is important to know the history and connection of Kona, Kona coffee and Konawaena so they understand how special this 50-year legacy of football at Konawaena is and they know their football genealogy.

“What is exciting is the reunion of three generations of Konawaena football together on the field on homecoming night. It represents the strong and loyal ties to our families, to the place that we call home, and to the school that started our legacy of football.”

Back into the jungle

Konawaena has football roots that can be traced to the 1920s, with the program’s first documented win coming in 1925 against Hilo Jr. High by a score of 12-6, according to the 1973 report, “Konawaena: Yesterday and Today.”

It also notes that in the early days, Konawaena’s original nickname was the Knights and the schools colors were blue and white. It was coach Louis Collins Sr. who changed the colors to green and white, after getting old football jerseys from the University of Hawaii in 1927. Collins was a veteran of the UH “Wonder Teams” and installed systematic training work at Konawaena

In 1928, Konawaena’s football team played Saint Louis on Oahu. Usually teams from the outerislands suffered tremendous defeats to Oahu schools, but Konawaena kept it close, leading radio announcer Ezra Crane to declare, “These kids are fighting like wildcats!”

Thus, the mascot was changed.

But the school’s football history was put on hold shortly after, when Konawaena shifted to the coffee schedule. This meant that Konawaena’s school year differed from the other schools on the island, with the students being off from September to November rather than the normal summer months.

It wasn’t until the coffee schedule was abolished that gridiron dreams returned to Kona and the program joined the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, which was established in 1956.

What Clarence Medeiros — a lineman on the original squad — embraced was the feeling of normalcy.

“Part of the excitement of playing football was a chance to get out of the coffee land and play football like all the ‘normal’ high school kids,” Medeiros said.

Nellie Medeiros, Clarence’s wife, agreed.

“With a football team that we could cheer for, it made us feel like we finally were a ‘real’ school and it helped boost our school spirit,” she said.

But all that time in the fields turned out to be pretty good training for the gridiron, even though they might not have known it at the time.

“What we lacked in experience, we made up for in brute strength and fearless determination,” Clarence Medeiros said. “Living in the country, we wrestled wild cows and wild pigs. We lifted and packed coffee and taro bags. That physically prepared me for banging heads and eating dirt playing football.”

There were no youth football programs or clinics at the time in Kona, so unless a player had relocated to Konawaena with previous football experience, players were limited to what they heard and seen on radio and TV.

“I can remember starting off with only about six offensive plays,” Clarence said. “Because we were inexperienced, we were easy targets for the other team to do trick plays, like the Statue of Liberty or the bootleg. But once we learned the trick about trick plays, we quickly adjusted to defend them.”

Clarence said they had an internal competition between the players on who had the dirtiest jersey — something that continues on most squads and shouldn’t be a problem Friday on what is expected to be a very muddy Julian Yates Field.

“We would tease each other about the color of our jerseys at the end of the game. The amount of white you could see on your jersey told the story of what position you played in the game, on the line or on the bench. We had an old wringer-type washing machine and my mother worked hard to get my uniform as white as she could for each game. And I did my best to get it really dirty at every game,” Clarence said. “Dennis Balucan carried the ball a lot and his jersey was always one of the dirtiest on the team. I remember doing a lot of down-blocking for him on sweeps.”

Having a football team also provided opportunities for other students to get involved and make memories that weren’t previously possible.

“One of the best memories was trying out for the pep squad and making it – almost like trying out for the football team,” Nellie Medeiros said. “Konawaena’s first off island game was against St. Anthony’s on Maui and the pep squad got to travel with the team. It was my first trip off the island.”

Generational talent

Football is very much about family at Konawaena. Not just between teammates, but because in many cases there are multiple generations who have suited up in the Konawaena green and white.

For example, when Dennis Balucan walks around the field Friday, he will be joined by his son-in-laws Chris Clifford and Hiram Anakalea — both former Konawaena football players — and his grandson, Kai Clifford, who is on the varsity team.

Clarence Medeiros’ son Jacob played for the program and his grandson, Jaimison Medeiros, is among the current crop of ‘Cats. Both Clarence and Jacob have given back to the program with coaching stints.

“It is rewarding to see that my son, Jacob, and my grandson, Jaimison, continue the love of football that is creating a tradition in our family,” Clarence said. “When you actually play the sport, it brings a different element when watching games together. You not only enjoy the game but you understand the mechanics of the game and really analyze the game.”

Current Konawaena defensive back and homecoming king Boaz Ayers comes from a family that has plenty of history at Konawaena as well. His grandparents, Edmund and Naomi Yamagata, are part of the class of 1969.

Ayers fondly recalls his time as a ball boy when his step brother, Dominic Morris, played for the Wildcats earlier this decade.

“I remembering watching them and knowing I wanted to play football for Konawaena,” Ayers said. “Stepping on our home field provides such a unique atmosphere. It’s a chicken-skin type thing. Every time there are still butterflies. You can feel the history here.”

Konawaena head coach Brad Uemoto grew up watching Wildcat games and went on to play for the school. Walking around the stadium, he can still remember hills he slid down and poles he sat by as a kid.

Now as a coach, Uemoto has preached the importance of playing for the community because he understands what Konawaena represents at every level — coach, player and fan. When Konawaena went on a historic run to the HHSAA Division II state championship last season, he cited the support from those around the program as a major motivational force.

“It reminded me of how it used to be,” Uemoto said. “I remember back in the day going to Sandy’s or Teshima’s and seeing football players in their jerseys. They used to be like celebrities. It’s nice to be able to keep that kind of culture going.”

Uemoto graduated in 1997, but left without a BIIF title. He’s more than made up for it as a head coach, leading the program to three straight, but he can speak from experience when he talks with his players on the eve of homecoming about having the hunger to be a team that is remembered.

“As a player, I never won a BIIF championship. Once I won a title as a coach, it helped fill that void a little but I still live with that,” Uemoto said “We have talked about being a significant team within the history of Konawaena. If you put up a banner here, it’s special.”

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The ‘68 team didn’t understand the historical implications when they strapped on the pads for the first time half a century ago. But looking back now, those who did can celebrate being the start of something special.

“Football created excitement for both the school and the community,” Clarence Medeiros said. “Everyone supported the team and looked forward to watching our games. It started by strengthening our school spirit and pride which spread into community spirit and pride which we continue to see today.”