PUKALANI - Depending on how you look at it, King Kekaulike High School football coach P.K. Higa is either a seasoned veteran or a fresh face out on the gridiron.
Higa served as Na Alii's head coach in 1999 and 2000 and was an assistant at the school for seven other seasons, ending in 2005. In that sense, he's familiar with the school's football landscape.
On the other hand, he returned as head coach again last year to a crop of players he'd never coached before. He spent the last year trying to build team trust, something he said is already taking shape this season.
King Kekaulike High School’s Kepa Luat-Hueu rushed for 508 yards last year, best among Maui Interscholastic League returnees
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
King Kekaulike’s Maave Emelio was a Maui Interscholastic League second-team linebacker in 2010.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
"We're in more of a comfort zone with the guys and we have a bit stronger relationship," Higa said. "Anytime you come in it's a transition period, so I think this year the relationships have already been established from last year.
"I think there's more trust in what we do as coaches, and I think we trust that the kids are a little more in tune with what we're trying to do, so it's really beginning to feel comfortable."
More than half of Na Alii's coaching staff is made up of former players, who Higa says "bleed the black and teal."
Na Alii at a glance
2010 record-3-6 (2-6 MIL)
Saturday, Aug. 20-Kauai 27, King Kekaulike 0
Saturday-at Lahainaluna, 1:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 3-at Kamehameha Maui, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 10-vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17-vs. Baldwin, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 8-vs. Maui High, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 14-vs. Baldwin at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 21-vs. Lahainaluna, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 28-vs. Kamehameha Maui, 7 p.m.
"They are the ones who helped to establish the traditions and were the forefront," he said. "Some of the players who are coaches now played on the first varsity football team. This is the field they grew up on, this is their house."
King Kekaulike has a varsity roster of 46, with 16 returning starters.
"Our nucleus is around those seniors and we're looking for leadership from our senior class especially," Higa said.
Among the seniors is Kepa Luat-Hueu, a Maui Interscholastic League first-team utility pick and second-team defensive back last year.
Luat-Hueu rushed for 508 yards in 2010, third in the league and tops among returning players, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
Maave Emelio, a second-team linebacker, returns as well, as do linemen Bear St. Michael and Brandon Kaha-lekai and receiver-defensive back Elijah Chincio.
While Higa praised his veteran group, he stopped short of naming specific key playmakers. He instead focused on the team as a whole, saying that winning games is "going to take a team effort."
"We see a lot of leadership starting to develop, and that's something that we always wanted to get going," Higa said.
Higa has installed a spread offense this year, but said his coaching staff stresses "the basics" in hopes of improving on last year's 2-6 record.
"We're going into a new
system offensively and you're always battling the learning curve, but I think for us this year, we're really just trying to be good at the fundamentals of the game. We just keep stressing to the guys that we need to work hard and take care of the little things and let all the other stuff fall into place."
King Kekaulike lost 27-0 to Kauai last weekend at Vindinha Stadium.
"Of course you try to go into a game to win it, but for the most part in a preseason game you want to get as much evaluation as you can from the players," Higa said. "Along those lines, we did establish and reach those goals."
King Kekaulike will face Lahainaluna on Saturday at "The Imu" in this year's first Maui Interscholastic League game. Na Alii went 0-2 against the Lunas last season.
"As we saw in the years past, it's going to be very competitive. Everybody has the potential to be really good," Higa said.
"We're going to have to work hard, execute well and minimize the mistakes. For us it's always one day at a time."
* Lehia Apana is at email@example.com