When it’s a game night in Pahala, everyone in the area knows.
Whether you’re driving south down from Volcano or north from Naalehu, the lights at the Ka’u High football field brighten the night sky.
“It just glows,” coach DuWayne Ke said. “You can see light everywhere.”
Those lights might not shine any brighter this season, but you can forgive some of the Trojans if they have a twinkle in their eye. The sense is they’re right where they should be: playing eight-man football against schools with similar enrollments.
“Compared to 11-man, 8-man was way more fun last year,” Ke said. “More competitive. It evens the playing field.”
The Trojans enjoy a proud football tradition as a charter member of the BIIF. But competitively speaking, it was often dark times in Pahala.
The Trojans reinstated football in 2003, but — overmatched and undersized — they won just five games in the next 11 seasons. During that span, the only time they scored more than 100 points in a season was during a three-win campaign in 2010 in which they were outscored 302-112. Most seasons were much more lopsided than that. In 2012, Ke’s first as coach, Ka’u ended its season prematurely because it was getting beat up.
But enter eight-man and the dawn of the new day.
“Ka’u is known for being tough. We may lose, but we go out and play with big heart,” senior running back Kupono Palakiko-Leffew said. “All that carries into eight-man.
“It might be better for Ka’u. It’s a fair fight for us.”
Actually, it’s a fair fight for three teams.
Kohala and Pahoa enter eight-man this season, but with one year already under it’s belt, Ka’u is the presumptive favorite for the BIIF title.
“We realize this is something Ka’u can take far,” Palakiko-Leffew said. “I never got a chance to play Kohala. Kohala coming back into it is good, and Pahoa.
“Kohala is basically Ka’u on the opposite side. Two country teams coming in and just jamming it out. It’s pretty awesome.”
Ka’u junior defensive end Gio Padilla said he used to look down on Trojans football — if he ever thought about it at all — when he was a freshman at Hilo High. But now, he said, the Trojans have an identity.
“It’s a smaller school, smaller team, (eight-man) makes sense,” Padilla said. “It’s where Ka’u should be.”
Palakiko-Leffew noticed the Trojans were even outsized last year when they played junior varsity teams from Kamehameha and Kealakehe.
“They were huge,” he said.
But in eight-man, the need for speed is greater, while bulk can be put on the back-burner.
“It plays into our hands, because we don’t have a lot of size, so we rely on our speed,” Palakiko-Leffew said.
Like many, he was discouraged when Ka’u lost its team and was wary of eight-man. But he perhaps more than any other Trojan can take advantage of the format’s wide-open aspects.
“Some used to look down on it, but it’s football,” he said. “Football is football.”
In preparing for the Trojans’ first eight-man season last year, Ke watched as much video as he could from Oklahoma’s high school eight-man league.
Still, he didn’t realize the distinct differences between the 11-man and the smaller version until he saw it up close.
“You don’t have to be 300 pounds to be a lineman,” he said. “You just have to be 145 pounds and hunt like a lion.”
So the next time the Trojans play under the luminous lights in Pahala, they’ll be picking on someone their own size.