LIHUE — It was seven years ago when Kauai Youth Football launched.
The reason being: too many kids wanted to play and not enough local teams.
“There wasn’t enough teams for the kids to play at that time with Pop Warner,” said KYF founder Brad Hiranaka. “We had all these kids. What were we going to do with these kids?”
KYF operates as a 501(c) nonprofit. Brad and his wife, Allison, run the league which has four teams — two each in Lihue and Kapaa.
The Hiranakas don’t profit from the organization.
“We had to take out a lot of money from our own pocket to purchase equipment. We had to do a lot of car washes and stuff. It’s a lot of money,” he said.
This spring season has one more weekend of games scheduled, in which teams from Waianae will come to Kauai to play against Lihue and Kapaa’s Division I (seventh through eighth graders) and Division II (third through sixth graders) teams.
Prior to those season ending games, Brad and Allison Hiranaka sat down with The Garden Island to talk about establishing the league back in 2009, how it’s been since and their hopes for the future of the program.
I know a lot of people here like football. I take it you’re cut from the same cloth.
Where did you play in high school?
BH: I went to Kapaa. (I graduated) in 1990. I played for two years.
Did you play youth?
BH: Yeah — Kapaa Pop Warner. I played, maybe, about six years.
So then, how long did you coach?
BH: I’ve been coaching 25 years — from Pop Warner, to high school and then KYF. Then high school again, and then KYF.
I coached Kauai High (junior varsity). I was assistant coach for two years, and then head coach one year. Didn’t do so good, so I left. (laughing)
Allison Hiranaka: Well, in the meantime, you were still running KYF. 2009 was when KYF started.
So what was the initial idea to start a new league? Kauai Pop Warner was already established.
BH: We were coaching Pop Warner at the time, in the midget division. We only had, I think, two teams — one in Lihue and one in Kapaa. There wasn’t enough teams for the kids to play at that time with Pop Warner. So, they cut the program. They cut the midget level. We had all these kids. What were we going to do with these kids?
I did some research. I asked the parents, the kids, my family to see if it was OK to start this whole thing up. Everybody was supportive in that way — family, friends, the kids, the players and their parents. So, we started with two teams — one in Lihue and one in Kapaa — in one division with seventh, eighth and ninth graders. That’s what we started off with.
And it went pretty good. It grew, then it shrunk down, and then it grew again.
Is that the trend? It fluctuates?
BH: It’s Kauai, yeah? Kauai, the kids go where their friends go. That’s the whole thing — wherever they want to go. It’s up to them, but we keep the kids busy. That’s the main thing.
So, that’s how it started? You had these extra kids that wanted to play.
AH: To keep them off the streets.
BH: Yes, to keep them off the streets. Our whole thing about this program is to build up the high school programs. To get the kids playing football, to get them involved so they can move up to the next level.
What would you say was the turning point of getting a league established?
AH: When you were doing your research. In 2009 when we took our son to college, because he was playing college ball. He would look at brochures.
BH: He was looking how in California the youth programs were set up. And then I called around. That’s how we started off — under the umbrella of American Youth Football.
What does it mean to be under American Youth Football?
BH: It’s good because we we started off with my friend in Oahu, Robert Faleafine, which is Jr. Prep Sports. He’s the founder of Jr. Prep Sports on Oahu, and they’re just growing and growing. Right now, they have Jr. Prep Sports in American Samoa and in Washington. They’re spreading his Jr. Prep program.
So, that’s the program you tried to follow?
So, the league started in 2009. In what ways is the league different now compared to that first season?
BH: It’s a lot more organized. We’re still working on getting better, but it’s better organized right now. It’s growing — the popularity because there’s no weight limit.
The people who we’re affiliated with Jr. Prep Sports, they fly down every season. Now, even more teams from Oahu want to fly down. So, we’re going to start it up in the fall again — the end of July.
So, is the spring season already pau?
BH: No. There’s one more (weekend) of games. We got Waianae Saturday, games on the 28th and the 29th in Kapaa.
You brought up there’s now weight limit. Why is that important? Does Pop Warner have a weight limit?
BH: Yes, Pop Warner has a weight limit. So, we just go by the rules of American Youth Football. They got weight-limit sections, and they got no weight-limit divisions. So, we just go with the no weight-limit divisions because there’s a lot of big kids and there’s a lot of small kids that cannot play Pop Warner.
They just get used to it. When they get used to it, it’s better for them. When they move up to the next level, there’s no weight limit — JV or varsity.
When you started the league, what were some of the challenges to get things going?
BH: Financial. The equipment is very expensive. Financially, it was very hard. And dealing with Pop Warner because we were like bucking heads — they want the kids, we want the kids. The following years, it was just, “Hey, it’s up to the kids. Wherever the kids want to go, they go.” If we don’t have enough kids, then we’ll shut down and just go Pop Warner. That’s fine with me. It’s just where the kids want to play.
On the other hand, what has been most gratifying?
BH: One of the satisfying things, you look at Nate Herbig (Kalaheo native, Saint Louis School graduate in Honolulu, committed to Stanford University). Never could play Pop Warner football.
AH: Maka Ah Loo (Kapaa High School alumnus, currently attends and plays football at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon), he’s an alumnus, too, of Kauai Youth Football.
BH: Maka Ah Loo, he’s one of the first. He started with us in 2009.
AH: Nate, he’s an alumnus, too. He was so big. He could never play Pop Warner. Then he went to Saint Louis, and now he’s going to play at Stanford. That’s something he could never play before. Then he played, and now he’s there.
BH: Mo Unutoa (upcoming senior at Kapaa High School), he played with us. He got like five to six scholarship (offers), and he’s only a junior.
That’s a different level we like to introduce the kids to. No matter win, lose or draw, the kids can look up and say, “Yeah, I played against those guys. What do I need to do to step and be at that level?” It’s a big difference.
This year, we went up maybe three weeks ago to Aloha Stadium. We brought up four teams. The Kapaa elementary team, they played against Laie Park — which is one of the top teams in Jr. Prep. They beat them pretty good. Kapaa won, 30-16.
AH: Laie Park, that’s future Kahuku students. (Kahuku most recently won the Division I state football championship.)
BH: Yeah. A lot of people saw that game and said they want to come to Kauai and compete with these guys. There’s a lot of teams that would kick our butt, but the experience level is good.
Also, I saw on your website that the program is a 501(c) nonprofit. So, you’re not making money off this?
BH: No. Nothing. Whatever money is made, it goes back to the kids — buying new equipment, refurbishing whatever we need, and we fundraise for travel. Every season, we try to make it and go off island and get that experience.
So, it sounds like this is a labor of love for both of you.
AH: It’s kind of like community service.
What drives you to keep this going?
BH: Pretty much for the kids.
AH: Giving back to the community.
BH: I think I gave back enough, but I don’t look at it that way. I just look at, if the kids want to play, then we’ll keep going. That’s the bottom line.
My next question was going to be, “How much longer you think this will go?” But it sounds like you just answered it — as long as kids keep coming.
AH: We thought it was over this season. It was kind of slowing down. It’s only seventh and eighth graders during the spring, but this is the first spring season we’ve had the younger ones come back — the third through sixth graders. That’s where we had to try to get more donations and fundraisers to help with the uniforms and stuff because we were only expecting the older ones.
Now with Kapaa, Kapaa last spring they participated. Now, they’ve seen what the whole thing is — what his (Brad’s) mission was. To get the kids from young, get them trained and then filter the kids to high school. (Kapaa most recently won its second consecutive Kauai Interscholastic Federation title and made an appearance in the Division II championship game.) Now, they understand where he’s coming from, and that’s what they’re doing.
Now, they’ve seen it. On Oahu, the teams they play against, the coaches — from Mililani, Kahuku, Kapolei — in spring time they coach the younger kids, the seventh and eighth graders, and then they filter them to the high school level. That’s what Kapaa is seeing now.
BH: We had to take out a lot of money from our own pocket to purchase equipment. We had to do a lot of car washes and stuff. It’s a lot of money.
AH: And through donations, too.
From players and parents, especially first timers, what’s been the general feedback about the program?
AH: They love it. It’s a lot of appreciation. It’s like, “Can we continue with fall?” They’re sad to see the spring season ending.
BH: That’s why we’re going to open up in the fall, and see the numbers of what we have and see if we can continue. If there’s not enough numbers, then we’ll just fold it up until spring again. Like I said, it (depends) where the kids want to go. If they come, we’ll open it.
So, it sounds like every spring and fall you make a decision depending on numbers. I can imagine that can be difficult, not knowing for sure.
AH: It’s like, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not like we’re really going to push.
BH: And it’s up to the coaches, too.
AH: Yeah, if the coaches want to coach. It’s all up to them.
Do the coaches get reimbursed for their time?
BH: Nope. It’s all volunteer. They even pay for their trips to Oahu. Same with us. We pay our own trip to Oahu just so we can set the kids up.
So, you’ve been doing this for some time now. You brought up that organization has been better. Is there anything else you think the league could improve on?
AH: Right now, for example with Jr. Prep, Robert Faleafine has been working with scholarships for the kids. That quarterback from Saint Louis (Alabama commit Tua Tagovailoa), that’s one example of where, from his organization, they try to push and get to that level.
Hopefully one day, if it still does continue, Kauai Youth Football, we can do that with our kids here. Go from high school and help push to that. That would be a main goal.
It’s kind of like, you look at Nate Herbig. That is one example, too. If it wasn’t for football, and academics too, if we didn’t have Kauai Youth Football, I don’t think he’d even be playing. He would have been way behind from what he is now. And of course, the football camps and all that stuff that the parents sent him (to). I think that kind of stuff, it’s good for the kids on Kauai.
Nick Celario, sports writer, can be reached at 245-0437 or NCelario@thegardenisland.com.