Wright On: Kamehameha football taking on true Hawaiian tone

Everything else in sports is shut down amid the necessary coronavirus concerns, but football season is still far enough in the distance that we can look ahead to next season in hopes it will arrive on time, with practice starting as usual in August.

That’s not a definite, but these days, when a future event hasn’t been canceled, it feels like something replicating our normal routines might be around the corner. It could be a long way to that corner, but one step and one day at a time, we will get there.

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At Kamehameha-Hawaii though, the football season will be a return to normalcy in the long view, but up close, it’s going to be decidedly different.

Incoming coach Kealoha Wengler is the architect of change and in this case, the change, you could say, is historic.

For the last six years, Wengler has been a school counselor at the elementary level at Kamehameha, while serving as a driver education instructor. Apart from that, he coached both the junior varsity and varsity football teams at a Hawaiian Immersion school on Oahu.

On those teams, his programs were described as unique because they used the Hawaiian language as a means of communication on the field from describing plays, pass protections, defensive fronts, all of it.

It won’t be unique any more at Kamehameha, since it’s already been done, but the Warriors will be distinctively different from all other teams in the BIIF in that they will be the only ones communicating in Hawaiian on the field.

“We’re going to have our challenges,” Wengler said in a telephone interview recently, “but every football team has its challenges, right? Every team has to instruct the terminology, or maybe little tweaks here and there in play calling, or whatever, to the returning players, while teaching it to all of the incoming players.

“I’m just really humbled to be afforded this opportunity, to be a part of the development of our kanaka. We want to build kanaka pride as we work to enhance it as a means of communication on the football field.”

That will be different.

“Everything we do verbally on the field will be in Hawaiian,” he said. “Our fronts, or plays, everything, and it will be a good thing because the Hawaiian language is so descriptive, it fits right in with Hawaiian Navigation at Kamehameha. So instead of ‘strong right,’ we’ll call ‘mana aka,’ instead of ‘trips,’ or three receivers, we’ll call ‘pakolu aka,’ which will be more descriptive for us.”

Hawaiian Navigation is a root teaching at Kamehameha, meaning an emphasis on just what it sounds like. From the school’s curriculum:

“Incorporate cultural traditions, language, history, and values in meaningful holistic processes to nourish the emotional, physical, mental/ intellectual, social, and spiritual well-being of the learning community that promote healthy mauli (life spirit) and mana (power bestowed directly or indirectly from a supernatural source; an inherent quality of command and leadership; authority).”

In that way, everything at the school is connected to the history of Hawaii, and, Hawaiians.

And, unconventional as it may seem to what most football coaches do, Wengler’s approach is hand-in-glove comfortable at Kamehameha.

Last week was, surely, the worst time of the year to be interviewing high school coaches anywhere in the country, given all the minute-by-minute changes to schedules brought on by the coronavirus, but in a few minutes between meetings, Wengler was able to describe the incorporation of his coaching beliefs into the Kamehameha approach to learning.

“I think the approach is so much better because of the descriptive nature of the language,” he said, “and most every student we have at the school has some background in (the Hawaiian language), but as they get older, as they get into high school, they don’t want to use the language as much, because they don’t think it’s cool or hip, we stress the importance of speaking the language of our ancestors.

“On Oahu, we had some pretty good successes as far as increasing attendance at school and reducing the amount of referrals for behavior issues.”

Part of his approach comes from his background at Kalani High School on Oahu, where he played for four different coaches in four years. Most would consider that a huge distraction with the constant change, but for him, it opened minds to different ways of doing things and bringing people together.

“We had expectations, we built bonds that, for a lot of us, continue today,” Wengler said. “We didn’t win a lot of games, but we found ways to bond, that’s what I took from it, so it was good.”

In the fall, fingers crossed, he intends to send a team out on the field that is together as a group because it grasps the concept of working together and makes use strategically of everyone on the field.

He saw a lot of games last year when the Warriors passed the ball around a lot, but his approach relies on the running game.

“We want to be unified,” he said, “we want to do cohesive stuff, so we will do a lot more running than we did last year.

“We want everyone involved, everyone contributing, and these days with the quick passing game, you see the quarterback getting rid of the ball so fast that, really, the offensive line is just involved for a moment, then the ball is out. When you have a running game approach, you need commitment from everyone to make it successful, and we want every player on the team contributing to every yard we gain on the football field. That’s something we can take pride in, something we can build on.”

Defensively, Wengler plans a bend-but-not-break approach that keeps each player involved, keeping everything in front of them. Realizing that surprise can be an effective weapon, he said he might blitz a linebacker or a cornerback here and there “to keep (the opponent) off guard.”

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Everything is out there, waiting to be implemented, if all goes well.

That last part feels a long way off, but it’s out there, waiting for the time we can again enjoy safety in numbers.

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