KAPAAU – There weren’t enough players on Kohala High’s practice field for it to go unnoticed.
The “middle linebacker” dropping back to mimic pass coverage looked a little old for a high schooler, and he wasn’t in uniform.
First-year coach Jay Blanco does it because he wants to, and, in part, because he has to. The Cowboys will almost certainly enter the BIIF season with what is easily the lowest roster size in the league.
“We have enough,” Blanco said when asked about his numbers. He didn’t have an official roster ready yet, and he’s hopeful a few more players will become eligible if they can get an exemption.
Maybe 16 people were out on the practice field on this day?
“Give or take, if you want to include the coaches,” Blanco said.
Still, its full speed ahead into Saturday’s opener against Pahoa, and if there’s a minimum roster number that Kohala has to avoid dipping below to continue playing, Blanco doesn’t seem fazed by it. He and his three assistants are only focusing on how to make this work.
“It’s about stepping in and doing whatever we have to do for the kids,” Blanco said. “At the end of the day, this is for the kids. They waited two years, so if I have to play linebacker, I play linebacker. Whatever it takes. They’re hard workers, and that’s all I can really ask of them.”
Quantity will be an issue for the Cowboys, but that doesn’t mean quality has to be.
Players will have to go three ways, Blanco said, as they fill utility roles, but a strong majority of the players roster got playing time in 2019 and grew up in the Kohala Chargers’ program in Pop Warner.
“We’ve played all of our lives,” senior running back/safety Legend Libron said, “so we just have to work with what we have.
“Other teams have numbers, but I’m not really worried about.”
If all goes according to plan, Libron will keep opponents worried as a quick-twitch, game-breaking threat. Libron, who had a 200-yard game to his credit in 2019, headlines a group that also includes junior Makai Pang and senior Damien Padilla.
Senior Kona Ledward takes the reins at quarterback. He played linebacker in 2019 before his season was lost to a collarbone injury, and he likely would have been the quarterback if there were a 2020 season.
“He has a real command of the offense,” Blanco said. “He’s almost a coach on the field. He knows what we’re trying to scheme based on the plays we’re running.”
Ledward wore a white no-contact jersey in practice, but, he, too, could play defense, at either linebacker or safety.
Like many of his teammates, senior wide receiver Onipa’a Matsuda has basketball experience, and Blanco likes his ability to win 50-50 balls.
The coach categorizes his players as either bigs or skills, and his two returning all-BIIF Division II players each check a box: senior lineman Keale Valenzuela and junior Isaiah Castillo, a former cornerback who has hit the weight room and will man outside linebacker.
Valenzuela will anchor the offensive lineman at tackle alongside juniors Tamatasi Sauta, Arlen Sol and Aidan Blanco.
Sauta will be a guard, but his bigger value might be on the defensive side of the ball.
“Don’t let the size fool you,” Blanco said. “Once he sees it, he’s kind of the enforcer. Fast enough to play linebacker, strong enough for the defensive line. He’s our stud, wherever he goes, he’s going to cause havoc.”
Kohala could have a luxury at kicker in Riley Preston, a soccer player who’s shown reliability in practice from up to 40 yards out.
Due to roster size, Blanco and his assistants – Eddie Valenzuela (defense), Dominque Acorda (offense) and Jason Ontiveros (special teams) – make sure practices are measured.
“The parents know the numbers aren’t ideal, that we don’t have the ideal 30-man roster,” Blanco said. “They know the extra risks with the kids having extra playing time. We’re really smart about it in practice, we utilize our time to so we can prevent any injuries at practice and make it to the games.”
The Cowboys have waited too long to not try and make it work.
Libron lists hunting as among his hobbies, but he’s itching for football.
“I’ve been dying to get back out there,” Libron said. “We work hard everyday, and come game time, we’ll put it all out there.”
Saturday vs. Kohala, 1 p.m.
Oct. 30 at Ka’u 11 a.m.
Nov. 4 at Honokaa 6 p.m.
Nov. 13 vs. HPA, 1 p.m.
Nov. 20 at Kamehameha 5 p.m.
3-5 BIIF Division II; 3-6 overall
Jay Blanco (first year)
“We’ve played all of our lives, so we just have to work with what we have. Other teams have numbers, but I’m not really worried about that.”
– Senior running back/safety Legend Libron