The Word of Life Academy football program took a giant leap forward last week when the Interscholastic League of Honolulu approved varsity status for the coming season.
The Firebrands played intermediate football for the past few years and won the ILH title last season with a 5-0 record (8-0 overall).
"This is the right thing for us. Three years ago, we started the program with all intentions to move up to varsity," coach Joe Onosai said.
Word of Life used to send football players into the Pac-Five conglomerate -- more than any other member school.
"Their main concern was how it would affect Pac-Five," Onosai said of fellow ILH administrators. "But Pac-Five has been getting a lot of other schools contributing."
Some of the Pac-Five's top former players, including Aaron Tipoti (Cal) and Brashton Satele (Hawaii) are from Word of Life. The move marks the first varsity addition to the ILH since 1974, when Pac-Five entered. Prior to that, Damien entered in 1965.
"There's a reason why it's been so long," Onosai said. "For a small school like us, it's a major undertaking. It's the monster of all sports. The budgets, the number of kids, the type of kids, all are big factors."
Onosai is a former Pac-Five head coach. He was an All-State fullback for the Wolfpack before playing offensive line for Hawaii and the Dallas Cowboys.
The Firebrands had more than 70 players last year and expect to field 40 at the varsity level. Eight will switch from Pac-Five to Word of Life, and another 15 will move up from the championship intermediate squad.
The church-based school will now have full autonomy to practice what it preaches.
"It's been part of our vision to expand. We have a different coaching philosophy," said Onosai, who is an assistant pastor. "Bottom line is we want a Christian atmosphere and a coaching style consistent with our values."
Two seasons ago, Onosai halted a move to the junior varsity level when WLA players didn't show a solid commitment in spring football.
"We've got some committed kids now," he said. "We've got some pretty big boys. I'm pretty confident that we'll be competitive in Division II. In D-I, we'll go in with a prayer."
A significant number of Pac-Five's linemen have been from Word of Life. Onosai's intermediate team has been successful with a bruising power running attack.
"We'll throw the ball a little more," he promised.