By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The thought wasn’t very appetizing to Sione Epenesa.
Would Honokaa, which won a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I football title as recently as 2009, have to drop football?
“I don’t know what I would have done with myself,” Epenesa said. “It was bad.”
A lost season was a distinct possibility in late July, when the Dragons opened practice and only 14 players came out, according to coach Bobby Embernate.
Honokaa even entertained the idea of combining forces with Kohala, but the idea was nixed.
“The second week, we put it out there that we might not have a team,” Embernate said.
Epenesa, a junior, and seniors Wayne Vaoga and Jeron Ramos were among the players who put on their recruiting caps to make sure that didn’t happen, especially not on their watch.
“I knew we would have a team,” Vaoga said. “I just walked around and told kids to play football.”
As school started, the numbers started to steadily rise, and Embernate’s roster has rounded out at a respectable 41.
However, many players are new to high school football, and have either only played football through Pop Warner or are first-year players altogether.
The third-year coach said one of the drawbacks at Honokaa is that the school district covers from Laupahoehoe to Kawaihae, so many students don’t come out for the team until school begins in August, putting everybody behind.
Because of the relative youth, Embernate enters the season with no illusions of grandeur. In fact, he expects major growing pains.
“The cement trucks are coming. We’re rebuilding from the ground up,” he said. “I’m excavating. We really got our work cut out for us.
“We got to coach them up.”
Some of those duties will fall on Epenesa.
“With all the young guys, you have to pick them up and help them out,” he said. “Try to take control.”
Nainoa Falk is only a sophomore, but he’s been one of the surprises of preseason camp.
He’s impressed his coach in practice with his command of the game and the chemistry he’s developed with his receivers, so much so that the Dragons are likely to air it out more than they have in the past.
Epenesa started under center in Honokaa’s 39-15 preseason loss to Waiakea, then Falk saw playing time.
Falk, who also may be called upon to run the option at times, performed well enough in a scrimmage to be named the No. 1 signal-caller, Embernate said.
Epenesa’s a better runner than thrower, so a move to tailback would be a natural fit.
“He’s carrying the team this year,” Embernate said.
The dependable Vaoga is another player who will have to “step it up” to help carry the offense.
Vaoga prefers to lead by example.
“Just by going out there and working hard,” he said.
Perhaps by necessity, the days where the wideouts at Honokaa hardly ever see the ball are over.
Whereas in the past the Dragons might feature a four-man backfield and a tight end, this season they’ll feature some three-receiver sets, with seniors Makana Ibanez and Austin Jardine in the slot.
“We have to balance it out,” Embernate said.
Juniors Kelcy Kaniho and Josh Perry are the top options at wideout, and they’ll try to make opponents pay for loading the box on defense.
Embernate would prefer to play “ground and pound,” but he feels the inexperience of this unit would make that unwise.
A team strength in 2012, the only returning starter is Ramos at center, though big things are expected of junior guard Kamaehu Richards.
The line will be called upon to do more pass blocking than in the past, and Embernate already has told the team to remain patient as the group gels.
Shane Batalona, a 315-pound transfer from Waianae (Oahu), will anchor the line at tackle and provide a run-stopping presence in the middle along with the 215-pound Riley Rechiro.
Vaoga will play a hybrid in the 4-2-5 scheme so that he can wreck havoc as an edge rusher.
The defense was far ahead of the offense in preseason camp.
“They will have to keep us in games,” Embernate said. “That’s the hope.”
The front seven is the strength of the defense, especially with Richards and Keaka Swift at linebacker.
Only a freshman, Embernate tabbed Swift “as a player to watch.”
“He’s already taking on a leadership role,” he said.
Unlike some other areas of the team, this unit has its fair share of experience.
The rangy Epenesa is the quarterback of the secondary at free safety, equally adept at playing the run or pass.
“He can do whatever we ask him,” Embernate said.
Ibanez and junior Paul Purdy are the corners, while another senior, Blaze Lindsey, will play safety.
Embernate called the third safety spot up for grabs, but Joshua Kealoha was in the mix.
No. Pos. Name
3 QB Nainoa Falk
44 RB Sione Epenesa
33 RB Wayne Vaoga
10 SB Makana Ibanez
11 WR Kelcy Kaniho
21 WR Josh Perry
75 LT Hana Sommerhoff
50 LG Kamaehu Richards
67 C Jeron Ramos
74 RG Kaenan Kaono
71 RT Sterling Carpio
33 DE Wayne Vaoga
55 DT Shane Batalona
64 DT Riley Rechiro
58 DE Nathan Gascon
52 LB Keaka Swift
50 LB Kamaehu Richards
21 CB Paul Purdy
10 CB Makana Ibanez
44 FS Sione Epenesa
40 S Blaze Lindsey
22 S Josh Kealoha
8/30 WAIAKEA, 7 p.m.
9/6 at Konawaena, 7 p.m.
9/14 at Hilo, 7 p.m.
9/20 KEALAKEHE, 7 p.m.
9/27 KAMEHAMEHA, 7 p.m.
10/5 at Keaau, 4 p.m.
10/12 at Hawaii Prep, 2 p.m.