Sports, and the catch phrases we learn from them, invade our national conversations to the point that you find politicians and everyday folk relying on expressions we get from our games on a daily basis.
We are so culturally influenced by sports, we don’t blink when someone says, in the middle of a conversation about, say, health care, that one side or the other, “moved the goalposts once again.” School board members, on a variety of issues, will say they are not favoring one side over the other, “I’m just here to call balls and strikes.” Good news is a home run, bad news? Sorry, you struck out. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, we all hear it all the time.
And when it comes to winning and losing, is there is a single schoolchild in America who follows sports that does not accept the premise that winning changes everything?
It is a completely acceptable statement, agreed upon from Lihue to Key West, except when it isn’t.
For that, consider the Hilo High School football team, in its second week of preparation for its second state championship game in as many years. When the Vikings won last year, they became the first Big Island school to accomplish the feat, and this year — this week — they can emboss that achievement by being the first to win back-to-back titles.
“That’s would be a first,” coach Kaeo Drummondo said, then, with a little smile, “a second first.”
From the environment he works in, a passerby would never guess this is a state championship football team, but that’s not a bad thing, not at all. It’s a Hilo High thing.
These kids, their coaching staff, the fans that follow them and the school itself all take on the look of outliers, a feeling of humility encompasses them in their practices on a serviceable, if not fancy field at the school. They don’t have two or three fields, one that is artificially turfed like some big schools, and there is no signage, no championship flags flying, no proclamation of 2017 STATE CHAMPIONS painted on the shack that Drummondo uses as an office.
In fact, the shack has less in it than a year ago when there was a small desk for Drummondo to draw up plays, or do whatever coaches do with their desks.
“It got in the way,” he said, “you get a couple people in here and it’s cramped.”
It doesn’t stop there with the fallacy of winning championships. The standard assumption is that, having been there, having competed and won a title, next year’s team doesn’t quite have that same edge, they’ve been there, done that, complacency is bound to set in.
They may lose or they might win their second championship in a row, but it’s obvious this group isn’t world weary from having done this before.
That championship team included 26 seniors who aren’t with the 2018 team, one of them Kahale Huddleston who was a part of 35 touchdowns a year ago. This season, Huddleston has been drenched in next level college football as a redshirt on the University of Hawaii-Manoa football team.
“He’s doing great,” said UH coach Nick Rolovich in a text message on Friday, “he’s adjusted to college and college football. More importantly, he’s developed confidence and belief that he can play at this level.”
We might hear from Huddleston again starting in 2019, but in his wake at Hilo High, a very large question floated around this team — how do you replace 35 touchdowns from one player?
You dig deep and find players to fit in where they can. So far, so good in a bizarre season interrupted by storms, a playoff game in which the opponent decided to forfeit rather than play the Vikings, creating a situation that developed into playing four games (counting the championship game), over the course of seven weeks.
This season is not like anything else, pure and simple.
You know how the cliche says winning attracts more interest? Drummondo had fewer players turn out for football this year than last year.
“From the very start,” he said, “the message to this team from Day 1 has been, ‘You need to create your own identity, that team that won states last year is gone.’
“In July, when we started, we saw a lot of holes, on both sides of the ball, I give these kids credit, we were finding our way, but at the same time, they had to be at their very best to make it to the BIFF championship, and when you get to the playoffs, again, that has to be your best game.”
They won the BIIF, they knocked off Maui 35-24 in the semifinal game to face Waipahu, a 20-19 winner over Iolani, to get to that second title opportunity.
These guys don’t fit the sports cliche. They win, but they are in process of constant change, finding spots for players who haven’t yet even discovered their best positions.
The top seven offensive linemen on this year’s team didn’t play last year. On the defensive line, the top six were all playing JV football last year, so, in reality, this playing varsity football for a state championship is all new to them.
A year ago, the varsity squad had been eyed by coaches years before, it was the culmination of a three-year project that continued to build through sophomore and junior seasons, then found its way to a championship.
This year, it’s a drastic makeover on the run, and somehow, it’s working despite all the confusion with weeks off, planning to play, having your opponent prefer to forfeit, it all exacted a toll.
“You have players drift off for a practice when they know we aren’t playing,” Drummondo said, “you have to go talk to them, reel them back in, get them going again.”
They are trend breakers, unpolished, not traditional in any sense. They are something out of the ordinary, like a comic book superhero with baggy pants and a plaid shirt.
It must be maddening for opposing coaches to scout these guys, because it is as if they just walked out of the shadows, unknown, unheard of, but ready to play.
The schemes they use are in constant change, what they did last year is of no help in game-planning for this year, but all those schedule interruptions, the disappointment of having an opponent forfeit?
They used it to get better.
“All that time,” Drummondo said, “gave us a little more opportunity to work on schemes, and when you do that, you’re really trying to fine-tune techniques, getting better at what you’ve been doing.
“The great thing is that I have a staff that loves doing this, they are constantly learning, offering suggestions and ideas and what that does is make me learn more, so that we feel better about a 4-3 defense that can switch to a 3-4 in the middle of a game, we have that option.”
They have options everywhere, it’s like they’re having fun enjoying the moment because they’ve never been here, which is kind of the case.
Just don’t tell them it’s a big deal, they’ve been off and on and they figure out how to keep on winning. Leave them alone and let them play, because this week, Hilo High is on again.
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