PAHOA – The blocking sled arrived at Pahoa’s football practice field the other week, and it’s fit for five players, not just two.
The headsets are new, too, and they’ll come in handy since coach Chris Midel’s staff has doubled.
“Previously, with just three coaches, communication was easy,” Midel said with a chuckle.
As he was talking near the sideline, players ran by doing a drill, and the interview needed to be moved a few more paces past the sideline – this expansion thing will take some getting used to.
The Daggers created quite the ripple in January when they moved to BIIF 11-man football, dragging former eight-man brethren Ka’u and Kohala with them and forcing realignment in Division I and D-II.
For those who think Pahoa is a little nuts, senior two-way lineman Kuni Kalani-Kaeha disagrees.
“Honestly, this teams needs that type of effort, we need that type of push,” he said. “I was happy and really excited when I found out we were going up.”
Midel began the eight-man program in 2014, and Pahoa’s first game in 13 seasons came against Hilo High’s junior varsity at Wong Stadium.
“We got smashed, but we scored and it felt good to get that first touchdown,” he said.
Many lopsided losses followed until Pahoa won its first game in 2016, but the goal all along, Midel said, was to eventually make the leap to 11-man.
That the Daggers came close to winning the eight-man title last season, falling short at Ka’u, played no role in the timing of the move.
“I never thought of it as being the right time or not,” Midel said. “I just wanted to get into the 11-man league.”
And it’s not just about wanting to play “real” football. The Daggers simply grew tired of only taking the Trojans and Cowboys – they’re ready to face the blue and white of Kamehameha and red and white of Hawaii Prep.
“We just wanted to play different teams,” Midel said. “Nothing against Kohala and Ka’u, I’m pretty sure they felt the same way.”
The biggest noticeable difference at practice was the eight coaches on hand instead of three or four. The roster of 36 players includes 17 freshman and is up about 10 players from the usual. Kalani-Kaeha, who transferred from Oahu’s Waianae before the 2018 season, is one of the few Daggers who has 11-man varsity experience.
“It’s a lot more fast-paced,” he said, “I told my teammates to get excited.”
Starting with the regular-season opener Aug. 22 against Hawaii Prep at Keaau High – Pahoa will play all four home games at the Cougars’ field – Midel’s primary goal is to compete week in and week out.
To do so, the Daggers will rely heavily on the leadership of three players: Kalani-Kaeha, running back/defensive back Duke Palma and fullback/linebacker David Martinez.
“Kuni will be a big factor,” Midel said, “I just have to make sure he doesn’t tire out.”
The same could be said of Palma, though the junior looks fit with stamina to spare.
Palma, made all-BIIF at cornerback last season and doubled as pass-catcher, and he’ll be a prime ball-carrier this season as junior Jayden Broad-Melander gets his feet wet as a first-year quarterback. Broad-Melander didn’t play last season and was a lineman in 2017.
Featuring some offensive sets out of the ground-and-pound double wing, expect to see plenty of hand offs as Palma, who has never played 11-man, runs behind the 5-foot-10, 280-pound Kalani-Kaeha, a pulling guard.
“I need to be more patient and wait for blocks,” Palma said of the transition, “but other than that I’m just going to try and outrun them.”
Of the three extra players needed on offense, two come on the line, and Midel said he has decent size up front in Ashton Kahele-Kia, Mason Tai, Derek Dexter and Isaiah Bustamante.
Many will be asked to play both ways, and Martinez, a senior, has the potential to be one of the rocks of the defense at linebacker along with Kalai Midel, the coach’s son.
Junior Aowihi Murphy is formerly from Hawaii and has invaluable 11-man experience from playing in Montana and will bolster the secondary at cornerback.
Earlier in preseason camp, the Daggers shared their practice field for five days with Iolani, which tuned up on the Big Island ahead of its 47-10 nonleague win at Kamehameha, the prohibitive BIIF D-II favorite.
“We saw the way (Iolani) practiced and they were more dedicated than us,” Palma said. “We need to be more confident, I think that’s where we are slacking a little bit.”
With its venture into a brave new world just a week away, team morale is also one of Kalani-Kaeha’s primary focuses.
He’ll yell if he has to.
“We need a lot more intensity,” he said, “I’m not going to lie.
“I come here to pump up the team and hype up the team.”