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Bring on MIL sports, challenges and all

BETWEEN THE LINES (Commentary)

Molokai High School coach Mike Kahale is doused with water by his players as the Farmers defeated Lanai on Oct. 5, 2019 to clinch their fifth straight Maui Interscholastic League eight-player football title. The Farmers have dipped their toe in the pool of the 11-player game, with two preseason games in 2019. — RICK SCHONELY photo

Like the rest of the Maui Interscholastic League’s coaches, Molokai High School football coach Mike Kahale can’t wait for the league’s football schedule to be released.

That should happen in the next few days, immediately following the release of state tournament and sport start dates by the HHSAA. What will be unveiled is a season like no other the MIL has ever experienced following the cancellation of the 2020 season amid the pandemic.

There are many details to be ironed out and challenges to be overcome due to the missed seasons in every sport, but they are hurdles that everyone will welcome, just to be able to get back on the fields of play.

We broke the story a few years back that the Farmers hope they are on their way to the traditional 11-player level of football.

With the momentum of five straight eight-player MIL crowns for Molokai blunted by the missed 2020 season — and with that league remaining at just three teams with the Farmers, Hana and Lanai — the need to get to the 11-player league only seems to make more and more sense.

Kamehameha Maui students cheer during an MIL football game on Oct. 14, 2017. How many fans in the stands will be allowed at venues is one of the next large hurdles that will have to be figured out as MIL sports return. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Farmers traveled to Oahu to play Nanakuli and to the Valley Isle to take on Kamehameha Maui in 11-player preseason games in 2019. In 2018, an agreed-to game on the Friendly Isle against Honokaa fell through when the Big Island team backed out at the last minute.

Kahale has talked to former Baldwin, USC and NFL player Kaluka Maiava, who is the coach at Hawaii Prep, about an 11-player game between the two schools, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Farmers charter the Molokai ferry to travel for off-island football games — at a cost of about $5,000 per trip — and the 2019 11-player games were preseason, so they were not covered by athletic money the school gets from the state and MIL, but rather had to come out of the program’s booster account.

With the MIL decision to not play preseason non-league football games this fall against teams from other leagues, the Farmers have already received an inquiry from one of the five MIL 11-player teams about playing an allowed scrimmage game.

Kahale is certainly intrigued and asked that team to travel to the Friendly Isle.

“We would prefer a home game,” Kahale said. “Not that we’re completely closed off to traveling — two seasons ago we traveled for both preseason games and that pretty much ate up our whole booster fund.”

There are opportunities like this one all over the place as we inch closer to the return of MIL sports.

Molokai has to be careful, however. They were outscored 76-0 in their two 11-player games in 2019 and Kahale, the registrar at Molokai Middle School, knows that the high school ranks will be going down with an incoming seventh-grade class of 63 this fall.

Molokai’s roster numbered 51 in 2018 and 48 in 2019 when the high school had about 400 students.

“That’s always been the end goal, especially with the potential of Kihei public high school coming on and splitting Maui High,” Kahale said of his program’s hope of joining the MIL 11-player ranks. “It just seems in the next couple of years we’re going to be in a prime position to really be competitive with the smaller schools, especially with Lahainaluna moving up (to Division I).”

Oh yes, the Lunas.

Another intriguing part of the 2021 season will be the four-time defending Division II state champions’ move to the higher level of play. Lahainaluna is riding an MIL football-record 25-game winning streak in league games, so the challenge for Baldwin and Maui High is now a lot bigger.

Both the Sabers and Bears are starting very slowly as they work their players back into shape after many have done little physical activity in the last 15 months.

“We’re going to start slow with them, just help them get in shape for the season,” Maui High head coach Robert Dougherty said Tuesday during team conditioning. “We’re taking it slow.”

Maui High assistant Collins Molden, a former player at Clemson University, is coordinating the Sabers’ conditioning program.

The Sabers haven’t won an MIL football game since a 29-20 win over Baldwin in a playoff for the Division I title on Nov. 2, 2018. The Lunas haven’t lost an MIL game since 2016.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here at Maui High, for sure,” Dougherty said. “From teaching (physical education) for just a limited amount of time with the kids in school, getting to know them with our 7-on-7 passing league … there’s a lot of potential. It’s just a matter of getting them back in here and getting them trained the way we want them trained, getting them to where we want them to be. There’s a lot of potential here.”

Dougherty said that no preseason games will definitely present a challenge to his new program.

“You always want preseason games, you want to know what your team’s about before it counts officially, so it’s beneficial, it’s fun, you can kind of experiment with some things,” he said. “As long as everybody’s operating under the same rules — everybody’s got no preseason — we’re all in the same boat. Can’t complain about it, it’s just the way it is.”

Baldwin coach Pohai Lee said his program is also taking it day by day until things are solidified. The Bears had 13 players at their second day of conditioning workouts Tuesday.

“That’s something that we can’t control, but we’re going to do our part,” Lee said. “We give the kids a lot of credit and respect for doing this, they’ve got to have ants in their pants.”

King Kekaulike, which broke a 41-game losing streak with three overall wins in 2019, had 45 players out for the first day of conditioning on Monday. It’s storylines like that that make the 2021 season so intriguing after the long layoff.

“Honestly, they’re very excited, just to see their classmates again, new faces, being a part of a team, I think that’s the biggest thing for them,” Na Alii coach Tyson Valle said Tuesday. “You could see at (Monday’s) practice that guys were just fired up to be back on the field.”

Like his colleagues, Valle can’t wait for the season to arrive. He coached many of his players in the Maui Police Activities League 7-on-7 season in the spring.

“I’m actually very excited, we’ve been through a lot of things with our club, on and off fields, and going to different places — finally to just be back home at the stadium, it’s a big blessing for everybody to be back up there and finally get into our facility and to actually touch turf again,” Valle said. “I think that’s huge for us. To see these kids out there and moving around, I think that’s big.”

There are several other issues to work out with the layoff and the uncertainty going forward.

How many fans in the stands will be allowed at venues is one of the next large hurdles to figure out. MIL president Jamie Yap, the principal at Maui High, is hoping for uniformity in the number, but that may not be easy to do unless the state Department of Health offers some guidance.

There are two Department of Education stadiums that are used by the MIL — King Kekaulike and Sue Cooley at Lahainaluna — one Maui County facility in War Memorial Stadium, and one private school facility, Kanaiaupuni Stadium at Kamehameha Maui.

I say bring on the challenges, release the schedule, let’s go. It’s time to play football and everything else.

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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