LIHUE — The Red Raiders went through some growing pains in 2015.
Because of it, head coach Derek Borrero is taking this year’s squad in a new direction in hopes of finding success on the gridiron.
“I pretty much scrapped everything I did last year,” Borrero said during Wednesday’s practice at Kauai High School.
“Last year when I came in, I tried to come in with what I left with,” he continued. “Nothing I did really worked. I knew a bunch of boys and I knew a few different coaches. (But) things have changed. … second year around, I know exactly what I have. I know what they can do.”
Kauai High School’s varsity football team is set to begin its 2016 season against Saint Francis School of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
The Red Raiders’ season debut is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Vidinha Stadium.
“I’m excited. The team’s very excited,” said Red Raiders junior running back Jaykob Nakaahiki-Young. “We’ve been preparing since March — as soon as spring break got done. We were lifting weights. We were doing speed and quickness. Everyone is really excited. We’re really, really preparing ourselves for this weekend mentally, spiritually and physically.”
Last season, Kauai High lost its first five games. The team then turned it around and won two of its last three games, both wins against Waimea, to finish the season with a 2-6 record.
“Last year was a little painful for me. But like they say, ‘No pain, no gain,’” said Borrero, who is in his second year at the helm since returning from a four-year hiatus. “It was a season I needed, as a coach, to allow me to grow. So, I spent a lot of time in the offseason looking at different things we could do with this team — just really focusing on these kids’ mindset. Having them believe in each other, believe in the system and believe in the coaches.”
One thing different about this year’s squad, Borrero said, is the jump in numbers. From last year’s 32 varsity members, the team now boasts 54 players.
“It’s always nice to have depth. That’s what we didn’t have last year,” Borrero said. “It’s really a big step. They developed a huge amount of experience. You can see it in their walk and in their behavior here. They grew into leaders. That’s nice to see.”
As for potential standouts, Borrero said Nakaahiki-Young and senior defensive back Rhylen Yadao-Purisima are two he expects to rely on heavily this year.
“Those two guys are just great athletes. They bring the hammer every single time,” he said. “They’re those young men who are very positive and have great character on and off the field. They’re the type of athletes, their behavior is just infectious. They’re going to be really important to the development of this team.”
Yadao-Purisima said the team has been especially energetic this week.
“We’ve been all fired up,” he said. “I think we got this this weekend. Our defense has been looking good. Our offense, too. We look solid.”
Red Raiders junior Keola Baclayon will be the starting quarterback for the Red Raiders. Baclayon earned the nod during the offseason, Borrero said.
“Not to take away from the other two (juniors Christian Manera and Aukai Albao). It was very difficult, and I needed help from my assistant coaches,” Borrero said. “What made it happen was during 7-on-7s. … It was an opportunity for us to put our quarterbacks out there and just battle. He basically won the job there.”
For the team’s two preseason contests, Borrero said the focus is not the final scores, but instead that his players give their 100 percent effort.
“Just leave it all out on the field and compete on every single down,” he said. “For now, compete and just battle out there, and let the cards fall where they may. Then, we’ll evaluate that.”
But when the Kauai Interscholastic Federation regular season starts, gears will change.
“The goal for the regular season is to win every ball game,” Borrero said. “Kapaa, after watching them Saturday, they’re still the team to beat. They’ve got numbers. They’ve got talent. They’ve got a great coaching staff out there. And they’re flying high.
“Kauai High School has been there before. We know how that feels,” he continued. “That’s a tough mountain to climb, but I think these boys are ready for the challenge.”
Yadao-Purisima said, aside from bonding with his teammates, one thing will make his senior season memorable — a KIF championship.
“We’ll just keep working together as a unit. If we keep practicing like we’ve been doing every day, just all out, I think we got this,” he said.
This story is the third of a three-part KIF football season preview series featuring Kauai, Kapaa and Waimea High Schools. Nick Celario, sports reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.