By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The eight fumbles left Sam Papalii perplexed, and the two-game losing streak has Kealakehe’s football coach a bit unsettled as well. But in a way, the Waveriders’ recent troubles have brought back fond memories for Papalii.
He thinks about his 2004 team, which struggled in losing three games in row but was good when it counted. That year, the Waveriders rebounded to beat Hilo for the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title, and Papalii says a similar scenario isn’t out of the question this season for a team that’s still trying to get 18 new starters to gel.
“It’s a work-in-progress. We want to win every game, of course, but we’ve had some growing pains,” he said. “But we’ve been through this. This team is talented enough, especially on the lines. We know the prize is at the end.”
About to cross the midpoint of the regular season, Kealakehe (1-3, 1-2), the three-time defending BIIF Division I champion, will try to build momentum toward the finish when it visits Honokaa (0-4, 0-3) at 7 p.m. today.
And a reinforcement has arrived with the return of Keoni Yates. Papalii says the senior could finally give the Waveriders a full compliment of running backs or he might play quarterback. On defense, he’ll be looked upon to help shore up a secondary that has been susceptible to giving up big plays.
The coach feels both his offensive and defensive lines have performed like championship-caliber units so far this season, but playmakers such as Lennox Jones, the 2012 co-Offensive Player of the Year for BIIF Division I, have been sorely missed.
“I know we can run the ball, our line is probably the best in the league,” Papalii said. “We’ve got good, blue-collar runners, but nobody like a Lennox Jones. Maybe Keoni can be that guy. He’ll go where we need him the most.”
The offensive line opened up holes in the running game during a 27-6 loss against Kamehameha last Saturday at home as the Waveriders ran for more than 240 yards — Akoni Demello led the way with 92 — but eight lost fumbles and six sacks sidetracked Kealakehe.
As usual, gauntlet drills — where defenders try to poke and pry the ball away — were a common scene at practice this week.
“Ball security is something we take very seriously,” Papalii said. “We work on the every day.”
He was also expecting to have the full services of shifty slotback Riggs Kurashige. The sophomore ran for 186 yards in a 34-21 loss to Hawaii Prep on Sept. 7, and then he had 90 more against the Warriors until his back stiffened up and he had to sit out the second half.
Defensively, Kealakehe only gave up 51 yards on the ground to Kamehameha, but for the second consecutive week its secondary was vulnerable. During their two-game losing streak, the Waveriders have allowed seven pass plays of more than 29 yards.
“Our defensive line can only do so much. If somebody throws the ball and we’re in man, we’re getting burned,” Papalii said. “Guys are coming in we think can fill those spots. Help is on the way.
“I’m constantly talking to our guys about trying to improve every week.”