Laveitiga Suiaunoa played football and basketball in high school in American Samoa before joining the military and eventually settling on the Big Island.
Among the important lessons he’s learned along the way is this one: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Some head coaches take jobs ready to instill culture changes, but it’s easy to see why Suiaunoa is taking the opposite route. He inherits the fine-tuned machine that is the Hilo High football program from former boss Kaeo Drummondo.
“The plan is not to make many changes,” Suiaunoa said. “The plan is to stay the course. We’ll keep the approach in the weight room and the practice field the same way it’s been the past five years.
“As far as preparation, we’ll continue to instill work ethic and try to uphold the Hilo standard.”
It’s one of excellence, most of which Drummondo credited to his assistants’ passion and preparation and his players’ commitment and hard work. Though Drummondo served as his own defensive coordinator, Suiaunoa was one of his most trusted lieutenants on that side of the ball, overseeing the line, as the Vikings won the past five BIIF Division I titles (seven in all) and state championships in 2017 and 2019.
“I think Lave will be a good leader for the players and the program moving forward and I wish him and the program well,” Drummondo said. “I’m excited to be able to follow the program and watch its continued growth.”
Suiaunoa, 43, married and the father of three, also has served as an assistant for Waiakea and Panaewa’s Pop Warner program before moving to Hilo High. His oldest son, Peter, was an all-BIIF basketball player and honorable mention in volleyball at Waiakea before graduating last year. Suiaunoa’s brother Legi is the defensive line coach at Oregon State.
When Drummondo stepped down in February, Suiaunoa said he didn’t initially didn’t think he’d apply for the job, but he reconsidered. He got the post roughly two weeks ago, and the waiting game continues amid the COVID-19 shutdown.
When there is high school football played again – HHSAA officials hope to unveil a tentative plan this month – the biggest difference to how Hilo conducts its business from a fan’s point of view might only be noticeable to those who attend practices or games with a listening device.
“Looking at all three phases of the game, there might be changes in terminology,” he said.
For anyone who is taking over a football program amid the uncertainty of a pandemic, the timing could be better. That’s especially’s true for the Vikings, who have thrived by making a near year-round commitment to the game, whether that meant offseason conditioning, voluntary workouts, trips to the mainland for 7-on-7 tournaments or camps on Oahu.
The Vikings ever spinning wheel of success has been stalled like everyone else.
“It’s difficult right now,” Suiaunoa said of not being able to interact with his players.
He was working with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Taniguchi to set up a plan and time line for individual workouts, and hopes his players are staying in shape on their own.
Staffing a program is another issue that’s popped up. Schools possibly could be facing 50% Department of Education budget cuts because of the shutdown. Last week, BIIF executive director Lyle Crozier told the Tribune-Herald that the league’s football teams usually have up to 13 coaches, but he wondered if that number might be pared down to “five or six” because of budget cuts.
Suiaunoa had already enticed Kana Silva, who last assisted at Kamehameha, and Kalei Young, former head coach at Keaau High, to join his staff, and he was hopeful to hire two offensive coordinators.
Still, Suiaunoa can only worry about what he can control, and he says the lofty expectations that come with taking over a dynasty aren’t a concern.
“Not really looking at it that way,” he said. “I’m confident with the coaching staff that we’re putting in place and having this culture that we have. I think if we do this effectively and work hard every the day, it should work out.”
The Vikings will have to replace 14 players who received all-BIIF recognition and paved the way toward a second state title in three seasons, including offensive player of the year Kyan Miyasato and defensive player of the year Kalen White.
Suiaunoa called them a “special group,” but he’s also excited about what’s returning: players such as running back/linebacker Lyle Silva, linebacker Mana Price, defensive lineman Tysen Kaniaupio, defensive back Kapana Kana’e-Kane and offensive play-maker Kaimi Tiogangco, who could take over the quarterbacking duties.
“Their work is going to show the younger players how we do things,” Suiaunoa said. “I’m confident they can show who the leaders are and we’ll continue to compete and put ourselves in situations to be successful.”
All he needs now is an actual start date.
“I’m excited to get out their and teach and work with the players and coaches,” Suiaunoa said.