Star-Bulletin Sports

Sunday, June 24, 2001



Special report: Can the field be leveled?

Issue of classification resurfaces

>> Br. O'Donnell profile.
>> Recalling 1970 ILH split.
>> Press Box column.

By Jason Kaneshiro and Dave Reardon

The search for the Holy Grail seems like an Easter egg hunt compared to the quest for classification in Hawaii high school football.

In theory, classification cures many of the ills plaguing prep football, but attaining that goal statewide remains elusive at best -- even after the Interscholastic League of Honolulu created a form of classification on Wednesday.

"We're dying on the vine," ILH executive secretary Clay Benham said. "There must be a major change, and in our view, (statewide) classification is the answer.

"Every school, no matter how big their enrollment, should have an equal opportunity to experience championships. Under the present setup you can't say that."

Many agree with Benham, but there is no consensus on how to attack the problem.

Hawaii and the District of Columbia are home to the only high school athletic associations without classified state championships in football. At present, all 44 football playing schools in the state battle for a single state championship.

The state tournament is an improvement over what was in place until 1999, when each island had only its own title to dangle as the ultimate prize (the Prep Bowl matched the champions of the two Oahu leagues). But creating more opportunity for schools to compete for a state crown remains a goal for many who have a stake in the health of prep football.

"Certainly the issue of classification in the sport of football is a reasonable one to examine," said Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations, which oversees the nation's prep sports leagues. "It seems to work all over the rest of the country."

News of Damien Memorial High School's intention to forfeit its games against state powerhouse St. Louis brought the classification debate to the public spotlight.

A classification system would prevent some of the hopeless mismatches around the state. The ILH has been a frequent example of the need for classification, as the gap between the haves and have-nots has expanded.

"There's no question a good, small school could participate against a good, big school," Kanaby said. "But what becomes the difficult situation is for the good, small school to do that week one, week two, week three and perhaps even week four."

Proponents point to equity, player participation and fan interest as the main advantages of classification.

"I think if you took the bigger schools right now in football and put them together and put the middle-sized schools together you'd have a lot of interest in the community," Punahou coach Kale Ane said. "You would hope we would be proactive and do what's best for the sport and what's best for the kids. Maybe we're wrong, but we won't know until we try it."

EFFORTS TO CREATE multi-tiered state championships have been stymied by factors unique to the Islands. And even the task of uniting the public and private schools on Oahu alone remains an uphill battle.

Keith Amemiya, executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association, again proposed a second state tournament at the state's athletic directors meetings earlier this month. But it was derailed before picking up much steam.

One roadblock is deciding how to classify schools.

Three leagues now have classification systems of their own. The Oahu Interscholastic Association splits its league into two strength-based conferences. The Big Island Interscholastic Federation opens with a round-robin, then breaks into two divisions based on team records. And last week the ILH formed two brackets according to enrollment and recent history.

But on the state level, quantitative criteria would not necessarily create an equitable format.

"Most areas that have classification classify them by enrollment," Kamehameha coach Kanani Souza said. "But Hawaii is unique in that you have some schools with small enrollments that are the better programs in the state. St. Louis and Kahuku have small enrollments, but they're perennial challengers every year for the state championship."

Also, are there enough teams willing to form a "super conference" and knock heads with the best teams in the state every week?

"Our Red Division coaches are already saying their schedule is too tough," OIA executive secretary Dwight Toyama said. "When you play the tough physical teams week-after-week it takes a bigger toll with injuries."

Geography also figures in, as leagues are separated by miles of ocean.

Hilo head coach Albert Kawelu spent several seasons at Genesha High School in Pomona, Calif., which competed in the state's 4A division. He said road games that required a round-trip bus ride in California equate to a plane ride and a night in a hotel for teams traveling to and from neighbor islands.

Still, he favors a state classification system. He also said the advent of the state tournament was a positive step in that direction and has increased motivation among the Viking players.

"They can see the goal now," Kawelu said. "The past three years, you can see the difference in our kids."

Waimea dominates the three-team Kauai Interscholastic Federation in football year-after-year. But the Menehunes are the classic overachieving small team from a small town, with a typical roster of 30 players from a school of 800 students. Waimea would stand to benefit immensely from a classification system, at least in the state tournament.

"Just being realistic, it's tough to see our guys go up against the big boys. Our young men don't back down to anyone and we don't teach that, but they aren't very big and physical and physical superiority wins out," Waimea head coach Jon Kobayashi said. "It would be nice to compete on a level playing field (for a state championship)."

THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE to uniting the leagues, particularly the two Oahu leagues, may be history. The roots of distrust were sown when accusations of recruiting led to the Honolulu public schools splitting from the ILH and joining the country public schools to form the core of the current OIA in 1970 (see accompanying story).

"(Recruiting) is always going to be a source of contention, even though we have strict rules prohibiting athletic recruitment," Benham said. "It's always going to be a topic of discussion. Things are somewhat the same as they were then, some say worse."

Some say the OIA is collectively holding a 31-year grudge against the ILH, and that is holding up classification. The OIA executive secretary disagrees.

"There have been earnest attempts to work well with the ILH over the years," Toyama said. "I know I'm comfortable with Clay (Benham). On another level, all five leagues get along better than before. I don't see a grudge and wish people would realize that is a thing of the past."

While administrators of the two leagues may have improved relationships, school principals often have the ultimate say in major decisions. And several sources told the Star-Bulletin there is some animosity at that level.

"It's the same OIA-ILH bull- - - - that's been going on forever. And it's becoming more one-sided because some of the OIA principals hate the ILH. It's blind hatred," said an administrator who asked not to be named. "If you look at it logically, the (OIA) saw the need to go to classification 10 years ago, and did it for their own league. You'd think they'd be supportive because it works for them, but the opposite is true."

As for recruiting, the biggest question is how to define it. Is it only overt attempts by a coach or school official to lure athletic prospects away from another school? Or is it the actions of an unofficial alumni and supporter network that alerts the athletic department to prospects? Or is it something in between?

Schools like St. Louis and Kamehameha have built up reputations through their powerful football programs that attract potential star players who come to them without prompting. The current school of thought is that some programs recruit simply by their record of success.

But that doesn't mean the more insidious doesn't happen.

And public school recruiting of athletes from each other's backyards has increased in recent years.

Obviously, private schools have to go after students, in some form.

"(Kamehameha principal) Tony Ramos put in perspective," Toyama said. "He said private schools have to recruit, for the school itself. Lots of schools, including Damien, run ads on TV. It's a very gray area."

WHILE SOME ARGUE little has worked to bridge the gap between the leagues over the past three decades, the events of the past week may provide a nudge toward the ultimate goal.

"At this point we're willing to make concessions regarding by-laws, regarding procedures, to make this a reality," Benham said.

Toyama said the ILH resolution of the St. Louis-Damien problem was "creative, especially given the short time frame." And the OIA's Red and White setup, though not perfect, has improved competitive balance in his league.

Toyama, however, is not optimistic about statewide classification. And the OIA -- which voted against the proposal for classification in the state tournament and did not support the current state tournament proposal that was passed three years ago -- appears content as a body with the status quo.

"Well, if the other four leagues want it ... ," Toyama said. "We'll see what happens with the ILH. Everyone will be watching that."

Classification for the state tournament seems workable, but has not received enough support. Statewide regular season classification appears impractical without major sponsorship from airlines and hotels -- not to mention agreement on format.

But the quest isn't without hope. Four years ago, the Indiana High School Athletic Association broke a century of tradition in creating classified state championships in boys basketball. And while the issue remains an item of debate in Hoosier-land, it provides an example of what is possible.

"Nothing should be ongoing tomorrow simply because that's the way we did it yesterday," Kanaby said.

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