Wright On: Honokaa has its man, again, and climbs to D-I

  • Fred Lau, who coached Honokaa to the BIIF Division championship in 2009, said the Dragons are returning to D-I when he returns to the sidelines this year.

WAIMEA — He hasn’t been prowling the sidelines for a couple years, but it would be a mistake to assume that Fred Lau hasn’t been paying attention to high school football on the eastside of the Big Island.

This is his turf, his office space. Up and down the Hamakua Coast, he’s coached high school football and won doing it.

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Recently named the head coach at Honokaa High School, Lau said last week he has seen virtually every Dragons’ game in the last seven years. He knows about the graduated players, he knows what’s coming up to the varsity, but significantly for a new coach, he already has his own scouting reports on the the other BIIF teams.

And now, we discover the possibility exists to duplicate what he did in 2009 at Honokaa when the Dragons won the BIIF Division I championship. Lau stated with no conditions last week that Honokaa has made the decision to step up and play Division I in 2019 following the inclusion of the three former 8-man teams (Kohala, Ka’u and Pahoa), to play 11-man and join Division II.

“I can confirm to you that we will play Division I,” Lau said. “We are all in agreement.”

His return to sidelines has heightened expectations around the program and Lau appears ready for the challenge. He’s been around the football coaching block in Hawaii more than a few times and is comfortable in a variety of offensive and defensive approaches, depending on the available talent.

“We are in a place at Honokaa where you can’t rely on a certain system, whatever your system might be,” Lau said in his office at the Waimea District Park and Gym where he is the Recreation Director II. “You have to be flexible in your approach, which means you always have to adjust.

“A lot of these (BIIF) teams are playing RPO (run, pass option with the quarterback), and throwing the ball around a lot. That’s fine, but we might be a little different, we might not be like everyone else.”

Lau, if anything, is steeped in football design and strategy. He was on board with the June Jones run and shoot offense at UH-Manoa, working the former coach’s camps, he has coached spread offenses and more traditional offenses, and he’s had plenty of time defending all of them.

His job with the parks department has taken him away from his Waimea home in the past, when he spent four years as director of Hoolulu Park, which includes Wong Stadium and Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. During that span, he coached for a time at Waiakea, which made for long days and short nights around a 120-mile daily round trip.

Now, the trip to the job at Honokaa will be trimmed by about 102 miles a day, in the same trusty truck that delivered him to work and back in Hilo for four years.

“Wow,” he said, “until you make that drive on a daily basis for months at a time, you wouldn’t believe the amount of wrecks and bad driving you see, so glad I don’t have to do that any more.”

He’s back in familiar territory, and he knows where his players are coming from.

“It’s like it always was,” he said, “we recruit our players from the (Pop Warner level) Hamakua Cougars and the Waimea Cowboys. I’ve seen them, I know what’s coming in.”

Lau also has a pretty good idea of how his offense and defense will attack opponents and, on both sides of the ball, he plans to conceal what opponents will get right up to the moment the ball is snapped.

“We’ll be under center a lot,” he said of his offensive approach, “you will see a lot of a single back behind the quarterback with two slot receivers.

“If we do what we want to do, the defense won’t be able to tell what’s coming by the way we line up.”

In the business, they call it window dressing, and if that seems to be an attempt to disguise a weak offense, think again. There may not be a pro team that window dresses its plays more then the New England Patriots. In college football, Clemson and Alabama lead the way in showing defenses a particular look and then, as the play unfolds, defenses see a whole new picture.

Defensively, it sounds like a playback of the offensive approach.

“I call the defense the second offense,” Lau said, “they are the ones who can take it away and score, or give a big boost to the offense. We will generally be in a 4-2-5, but one thing we might do a little different is that the (opposing) center will not get a pass when they play us.

“So many teams just let the center do whatever he wants to do, and they concentrate on rushing from the ends. We will hit the center, give him something else to think about when he’s about to snap the ball, because we won’t come at him from the same place every time, we’ll mix it up, try to make that guy guess.

“There will be no free passes from our defense.”

Lau said his defensive alignment will change play-by-play so that the quarterback can only guess where the attack will come from when his team lines up.

“You have to make (the quarterback) hesitate just a bit, make him guess, that will give us a little more time.”

All of this involves the principle you hear about with most any coaching change in football at most any level — a culture change.

“That’s the first thing, changing the culture,” Lau said, “but that’s not a knock on the last coach or his staff, it’s nothing about that at all. What it means to me, is that Honokaa has a new head coach and some new assistants, and it’s not going to be just like it has always been. They call it a culture change and it sounds like the previous guy did something wrong.

“It’s not about being wrong, it’s about new personalities and new ways of doing things.”

The fact that Honokaa is moving from Division II to Division I would suggest some level of change in the culture even if the same coaching staff was involved.

The last time Lau coached Honokaa, it won the BIIF in 2009 and almost did it again the next year. He’s making no predictions and he says not to be surprised if you don’t see much from the Dragons in preseason games.

“We use those to give everyone an opportunity to fit in, we put kids in places we think they can be good, and then we go from there,” he said. “But when it starts? When BIIF play starts? We’ll be ready to go.”

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Sounds like a guy who has been there, done that, and has a plan going forward.

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