Wela Mamone has no problem with sports history in Hawaii, he just wants to change it up slightly, tip it a little in a new direction.
With respect to the past, of course.
“Hawaii has a reputation as far as youth sports go,” Mamone said last week, “people know we have produced some pretty great Little League baseball teams, it’s been going on for a long time.
“I say congratulations and much respect to them, they have built a great tradition. We’d like to do something like that ourselves, we’d like to have people known Hawaii for its young football players, too.”
The opportunity is there for Mamone and his father Sergio Mamone, headed to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Thursday for the 2019 Pop Warner National Championships, a week long explosion of youth title competitions at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, complete with cameras, lights, hair-sprayed talking heads, cheerleaders, confetti and all the rest.
His father took a team there in 2013 after claiming the regional championship, and now Pops is the designated assistant coach for Panaewa Alii, Wela is the official head coach, but that’s all just paperwork to the family.
“We’re doing it together,” Wela said, “I’m basically the defensive coordinator, and he’s the offensive coordinator, but they need to have someone listed as the head coach, so that’s me this time.
“At the beginning of the season, we discussed with the team how this was a possibility if we could win all of our games, and the kids basically took it for real and went after it.”
The head coach is now 21, with some background in what football means on the Big Island.
When he was in junior high school, Wela had some issues and it was determined it would be best for him to live on Oahu with a relative for his freshman year, and turn out for the St. Louis School football team led by coach Cal Lee.
“I was immature and needed to grow up a little, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” Wela said. “I got to meet Coach Cal Lee and he pointed me in the right direction.”
Lee, the most successful high school in Hawaii history (241-32-5), decided to keep Mamone on the varsity squad, even though he knew the youngster would play more on the junior varsity. Perhaps the coach thought it was best for Mamone to see and feel what great teams do, even if he wasn’t a regular on the field.
“I didn’t play much, but I saw a lot,” Mamone said.
He was advised to come back home, enroll at Hilo and play for coach Dave Baldwin, who was placed on administrative leave following that season and Kaeo Drummondo was then appointed head coach.
He soon realized he was in the right place, if not the ideal time. Drummond coaches with a holistic approach that includes all aspects of the game, of education and responsibility, of being a productive member of the community.
Mamone received a full immersion into the big picture of high school football, and while his two years playing for Drummondo ended the year before the Vikings won their first of two state championships in three years — the second being Friday’s last-second 20-17 victory over Iolani — he surely began to realize the importance the game had been in his life, and he wanted to stay involved.
More to the point, Wela Mamone wants to be a football coach, it has become a lifetime goal.
“Playing for Coach (Drummondo), was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “I kind of had an idea about what my role would be as a linebacker, but I really needed that full experience, I needed some good chalk sessions to see it the way it was supposed to be, then I needed to write it down myself — you can’t just look at it, you need to write it down yourself and visualize it as you write it.
“I needed a deeper understanding and I got it,” he said. “We had chalk sessions after practice because I had a lot to learn, really, to understand better. He would answer a question and then ask, ‘But what if this happened,’ or something like that and it would just get more and more into it. There were some times we weren’t done until 9 o’clock, and Coach would give me a ride home.
“It was a great experience for me.”
After Hilo, he attended a community college in Virginia and is now back on there Big Island attending Hilo Community College and ready to extend his football experience with the new community college-based club team league that will get under way in January. He intends to graduate and at this point, the idea of sports psychology holds a lot of interest.
“The thing of having an injured player who feels depressed about the injury, about not being able to participate, the difficulty of coming back and just the whole trauma of the situation? I think that’s an area where we could use more help in football, I want to coach, but I like that whole aspect of coaching, that personal touch.”
Naturally, the idea of finding a role somewhere on Drummondo’s coaching staff is an appealing on, but filling a need with another Big Island team would be welcome. The time will come when he puts himself forward as a useful coach on a committed staff.
But for now, it’s all about competing for national recognition for his mostly 14 year-old players in Florida.
“I think it’s a pretty talented group,” he said of his Hilo team. “In the first part of the season, they won games but they weren’t really getting the big picture, but about midseason, it changed and they all started really getting what we were trying to teach them.
“They are really a step ahead right now,” Mamone said, “they’ve bought in, they’re getting it all the way.”
They probably do what a lot of 14 year-olds teams do, without a sophisticated passing attack that employs four or five wide receivers, running backs who can block and catch and big tight ends with good hands.
They run a lot of RPO (run or pass option with the quarterback), play a 4-4 base defense to slow down that kind of offense, and it all comes down to communication and understanding among the players.
Just before the summer break at school, Sergio called Wela and suggested they should work together and coach a team with the goal of getting back to the age-group championships in Florida.
“It wasn’t a long discussion,” Wela said, “it was something we both wanted to do.”
They got it done and now they have a chance to finish the goal by overcoming the travel logistics and and taking a team to the Sunshine State with the idea of winning, as opposed to taking a vacation.
It’s a lot to ask of 14 year-olds, starting with plane travel that will be twice as long, and then some, over what any other team endures. One long travel day, a day to stretch out and see the facilities and then a game.
“We want to be the first Hawaii team to bring home some football gold,” he said. “We’re just one island out here, but we’re determined. We will give it everything we have to give.”
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