By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The pain was obvious. The look of absolute disappointment was spread across so many faces. Players sat under a dark cloud on the brownish green grass at Keaau High’s football field, after losing a game that held special meaning.
Last season, Keaau went 0-7 in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I standings. It was the first time the Cougars finished winless since they made their debut with an 0-8 record in 2001.
They entered their BIIF season opener at home last Saturday with high hopes, expecting to snap that losing string. It didn’t matter that they would face Kealakehe, which has officially captured seven of the last nine league titles. The Waveriders rallied and pitched a defensive shutout in the second half to upend the Cougars 21-12, crushing Keaau’s shot at beating the BIIF’s perennial powerhouse for the first time since 2007.
It didn’t help that the Cougars were their own worst enemy. They had over 100 yards in penalties. They had only two turnovers, but both were turned into second-half Kealakehe touchdowns. There were other malfunctions as well.
On offense, they couldn’t really get a running game going. Junior running back Justin Quesada showed nice flashes of fast stop-and-go speed, but he couldn’t sneak through any holes to break a long run. He had 22 yards on seven carries; he was the leading rusher.
Senior quarterback George Lucas-Tadeo completed 21 of 42 passes of varying distances for 233 yards with two touchdowns, but he had one interception returned for a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Maybe far worse, his receivers had six drops, several for potential long gains, which led to missed scoring opportunities.
Energetic out of the gate, Keaau led 12-6 at halftime, but missed two-point attempts both times. The offense couldn’t score in the second half. The defense made only major mistake and it was costly, allowing a go-ahead touchdown.
In the third quarter, the Waveriders recovered a fumble and eventually forced their way into the red zone, relying on their run-based jumbo, I-formation attack. On fourth-and-goal from the 10, the Cougars bit hard on play-action, losing a small slice of discipline for a split-second, and quarterback Kaimi Wilson had an easy touchdown toss to Keaho Kaakimaka for a 14-12 lead. That was the turning point, put together by all the other little but crucial mistakes by Keaau — the six drops, missed two-point attempts, lack of a running game and so forth.
Under approaching darkness on that Saturday evening, Keaau coach Michael Nonies stood at the head of his team’s circle of players. His guys were downcast. Then Nonies made a transformation, turning from coach into counselor.
He praised his Cougars for playing hard for all four quarters, sticking together as a team, and making the coaching staff proud. One message to his players that changed the mood was his last, “Be proud of yourselves.”
For all the optimism, Nonies, his staff and players had entering the game against the physically bigger and slightly more experienced Waveriders, the Cougars were an unknown quantity. Keaau didn’t play any preseason games. Now, Nonies knows what he’s got. And the fourth-year coach couldn’t be any prouder of his latest Cougar football squad.
“We learned we’re ready to compete,” he said. “They didn’t feel overmatched against Kealakehe. For us, we didn’t know what type of team would show up, but we gave it our best. We know we have enough confidence to play anyone.
“Kealakehe showed they’re a championship team. When they had to make plays, they made them.”
If a game ball was awarded, it would have gone to Keaau’s defense. The Waveriders were held to 26 yards passing, and 120 yards rushing on 39 carries, a 3.1-yard-per-attempt average — stats that would make any defensive coordinator proud.
Also, Baylen Guerrero reeled in an interception and Tristan Haskell recovered a fumble. They were part of the Keaau secondary lockdown aerial patrol. “The defense played tremendous,” Nonies said. “There were so many guys on that side of the ball. Both sides of the ball team-wise did a great job. Everybody had their moments.”
The Cougars know that the well-traveled road to the BIIF championship goes through the Waveriders, who don’t lose at home when a title is on the line as recent history shows. Keaau has played Kealakehe for the crown in 2005, ‘06, ‘10 and ‘11 and lost each time.
“I’ve been here 10 years (as an assistant and coach), and they’re always different at home,” Nonies said. “You rarely catch them in a bad situation at their house. They’re really hard to beat over there. But to beat them, it doesn’t take anything special. You just have to not make mistakes.”
That said, Nonies also knows the importance of not being the No. 4 seed in the BIIF Division I four-team playoffs and having the likely prospect of playing No. 1 seed Kealakehe at home.
“That’s our goal. We’re really getting ready for the playoffs,” he said. “We’re ready to scratch that itch for a win. It’s coming.”