KAPAAU — Kohala’s football team packed lightly for its flight back from Oahu. Neither the deer, the headlights nor the look were allowed on the plane ride back home.
The Cowboys reintroduced themselves to 11-man football earlier this month with a series of practices and a game against Kalani, and if there ever was an invaluable 35-0 loss, it was this one, coach Chad Atkins said.
Wide eyes turned into wiser eyes.
“We wanted to shake all those things out,” Atkins said. “Just their resiliency. I saw the intimidation early, but when they figured they could handle, it was, ‘Let me in, let me in.”’
They will all get that chance, starting with a BIIF Division II opener up the road at Hawaii Prep on Aug. 31. That date is marked on everyone’s calendar at Kohala, which last recorded a multiple-win 11-man season in 2009 before shuttering the 11-man program in 2012.
The Cowboys went winless in eight-man last season against Pahoa and Ka’u, so junior Ryan Juan Kealoha, a rare two-way player at quarterback, is taking the season-long process one step at a time.
“I’d like to bring a win back to Kohala, it’s been some time since there was a win here,” Kealoha said. “Start small, try to win a game and grow from there.”
Atkins is upbeat during a practice at the football field behind the school, and that’s partly because he’s got five assistants, which allows for a no-player-left-behind mentality.
Players shuffle in and out of drills in 10- and 15-minute intervals, receiving more hand’s on attention from coaches, instead of just waiting around idle at times like they did in previous seasons.
“We’re practicing harder and everybody has a different mentality,” senior linebacker Zyan Caravalho said. “It feels better.”
Caravalho, sophomore Legend Libron and junior MJ Macaspac all agreed: Football just seems that much more professional this season.
Kohala was a charter member of BIIF football in 1956 — along with Hilo, Honokaa and Pahala, as it was known before becoming Ka’u — though success has been limited since a title in 1960.
Atkins remembers Kohala’s last winning season well. In his senior year, 1997, the Cowboys finished 6-4, including two wins in which they “slaughtered” Hilo.
“I want to see these kids succeed,” he said. “Their parents are all guys that we played. I want their kids to experience what we felt having success.”
It’s only natural to lump the three former eight-man programs together as they join Kamehameha and HPA in D-II for a home-and-home schedule.
“We’re all coming, these other schools don’t understand heart and scrappy,” he said. “We’re going to have kids out there fight until the end. I don’t think they are going to be ready for that.”
The Cowboys, Daggers and Trojans, in turn, likely will have to be ready to face more sophisticated passing attacks, especially against the Warriors.
BIIF eight-man had become a predominately run-heavy league, but Atkins wants the Cowboys to run the spread and pass more since it suits Kealoha’s strengths, saying, “He can sling it.”
Dropped balls from pass-catchers were a major problem in the loss at Kalani, forcing the offense to move backward. Earlier that week, Kohala watched the University of Hawaii practice, and Kealoha got one-on-one attention from UH coach Nick Rolovich to go over basic fundamentals.
“It was a totally different animal over there,” Kealoha said. “We want to make this town known.”
The Cowboys are known for their perennial-contending boys basketball team, and running back Libron said the the football team has the potential to get there as well, “If we work hard enough.”
Libron didn’t play last season, but he’s a Pop Warner veteran and will be the primary ball-carrier along with junior Zhane Ching.
Atkins has few concerns about his offensive line.
Junior Blake Lapitan can play anywhere up front, senior Kamani Provencal returned bigger for his senior season and freshman Keale Conte-Valenzuela is a potential game-changer at center.
Sophomore Onipa’a Matsuda, freshman Isaiah Castillo and senior La’akea Mamala are in mix a wide receiver, a position that could use some seasoning, though the popular opinion at practice was that it will come in time.
“Kohala is always going to be known for speed and skill,” said Macaspac, who is one of the strengths of the defense.
The junior’s No. 88 is atypical for a middle linebacker. He wears it to honor his late grandfather and gain inspiration.
His attitude is typical for the position, and he shares his Atkins’ enthusiasm and confidence.
“Those teams are not going to run through me,” Macaspac said.
Atkins calls Tamatase Sauta a grown man, and along with anchoring the defensive line he’ll also get carries a running back, and junior Cael Hooton is another strong player up front.
One of the defensive players who was ready against Kalani, Atkins said, was Caravalho, who used his speed at linebacker to record two sacks a during a series.
Kealoha also played linebacker in that game, though he could play safety, and Libron and backup quarterback Kona Ledward are hybrids as well. Senior Zak Javillonar will get looks at wideout and defensive back.
Following the 11-man transition theme of Pahoa and Ka’u, the Cowboys are freshman strong. Of 37 players listed on the roster, 19 are ninth-graders.
Atkins is patient, to a point.
“It may take us a couple of years, but we are going to get there,” he said. “We have good work ethic and a good plan.”
At a glance
Last season: 0-6 BIIF 8-man
Coach: Chad Atkins (first season)
Number to know: 0 – Kohala players who had 11-man varsity experience before the Kalani game.
Quotable: “We’re all coming, these other schools don’t understand heart and scrappy. We’re going to have kids out there fight until the end. I don’t think they are going to be ready for that.”
Kalani 35, Kohala 0
BIIF Division II
Aug. 31 at Hawaii Prep 2 p.m.
Sept. 7 vs. Pahoa 1 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Ka’u 11 a.m.
Sept. 21 vs. Kamehameha 1 p.m.
Sept. 28 vs. Hawaii Prep 1 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Pahoa 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Kamehameha 6 p.m.
Oct. 26 vs. Ka‘u 1 p.m