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The Warriors football program is digging out from beneath what was a rough 2021 season.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aloha quarterback Lucas State attempts a pass during the Warriors' game against Lincoln Thursday, Sept. 8, at Aloha High School.
It's been tough times for the Aloha football program over the past year.

After a 4-2 COVID-shortened spring season in 2021 and a 9-2 finish in the 2019 season prior, the Warriors struggled to an 0-9 record while being on the wrong end of a 407-44 scoring differential last year.

But despite two defeats to start this season, second-year head coach James Mitcham is proud of his guys and excited for whatever the 2023 season brings.

"We have a family motto that says, 'Forget about me, I love you,'" Mitcham said. "The brotherhood that these players are creating is truly remarkable and it's an ego-free zone. It's positive, and so are we."

While in just his second year as the head coach, Mitcham has 18 years invested in the Aloha program and has seen a lot of wins, his share of playoff appearances, and even a state championship in 2010.

But what he hadn't seen, nor expected to see, was what came last year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers were down, morale was low, and injuries ultimately dealt the team and program a devastating blow.

"It kind of caught us by surprise, to be honest," Mitcham said. "We got bit by the injury bug early, but also with sickness, numbers and people still being concerned about the virus, it was really an interesting year."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aloha defensive back Jestin Berry prepares to apply a hit to the Franklin quarterback during Warriors' game against Lincoln Thursday, Sept. 8, at Aloha High School.
Mitcham added that he was learning on the job as well, working to build the chemistry with his coaching staff necessary to best offer his kids an opportunity to succeed.

"It being my first year, there were certainly some major learning opportunities for myself," Mitcham said. "I think I'm a much stronger coach this year, having gone through my own struggles. I worked with this staff as an assistant before, but it's different, and I think our relationship in my second year is much stronger."

The coach said everything about this year's team is different, and that they owe that to the commitment by the players during the offseason. Mitcham said they dedicated themselves to strength training, and through a series of bond-building exercises, they've built the type of camaraderie off the field necessary to have success on it.

"It was really self-driven," Mitcham said. "We've got a really positive senior class with leadership who just said, 'This is our senior year, and this is how we want to take it on.'"

The seniors — along with some "nasty" juniors — and the chemistry they've built are the backbone of this year's team, with lineman Myles Pankratz, running back/linebacker Damien Lopez, and running back/defensive back Jacob Boyce leading the way.

Additionally, the coach mentioned junior quarterback Lucas State as a player whose internal drive and leadership ability will play a big role in the success of this year's team.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aloha quarterback Lucas State attempts a pass under the protection of offensive lineman Jose Gonzalez Cazares during the Warriors' game against Lincoln Thursday, Sept. 8, at Aloha High School."He's been a leader in our program ever since he was a freshman," Mitcham said. "He still got things to learn and he's still young, but he's really stepping up and is going to be big time for sure in the next couple years."

The coach also said he believes one of the team's strengths will be running the ball due to State and some quality backs, along with a solid defensive front. At the same time, the team is young on the outside on both sides of the ball, and that they'll be looking to make strides as they go in that department.

"We need to continue to work on the perimeter," Mitcham said. "They'll be some growing pains, but we have kids that are willing to grind, eager to learn and not afraid of hard work."

However it plays out and whatever their record amounts to a few months from now, the Aloha coach said he'll get the best from his players because they're in it for the right reason: contributing to the team.

"This team takes criticism very positively, which is fantastic," Mitcham said. "In what's kind of a very egotistical world right now, I've got a solid group of guys that are humble and genuinely interested in the betterment of the team. I can't ask for much more than that."

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