By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Champions find a way to win, even if they haven’t exactly figured themselves out yet. That’s one small reason the Kealakehe gridiron powerhouse, usually blessed with the most size, speed and depth (three bigger explanations), has officially captured seven of the last nine league titles.
There coach Sam Papalii stood, soaking in the scene, at Keaau High’s football field on Saturday evening after his Waveriders prevailed over the Cougars 21-12 in a hotly contested Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I showdown. Fortunately for the visitors, the game turned right-side up in the second half.
Keaau led 12-6 at halftime, poised to upset Kealakehe for the first time since 2007. The home team carried momentum into the locker room, after quarterback George Lucas-Tadeo threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Justin Quesada with just 28.6 seconds on the clock.
“We’ve got a long way to go, especially on offense,” Papalii said in the aftermath. “We still have to find our personality. We fought hard like we always do. Defensively, we’ve got a lot of young personnel and we missed a ton of tackles in the first half. Keaau came to play, but we shut them down in the second half.”
To clarify the smaller point first, the Waveriders saw Lucas-Tadeo slip through four or five potential sacks with his pocket savvy and mobility. Too often, Kealakehe tacklers made a beeline for the Keaau senior QB, instead of targeting his outside shoulder to force him to scramble inside where traffic waited.
The larger issue is the direction of the offense. Is Kealakehe a passing team with its spread offense? Or a running team? Is the jumbo I-formation package with three runners in the backfield the best plan to find the end zone?
New quarterback Kaimi Wilson was 6 of 12 for 26 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Daniel Webber rushed for 63 yards on 16 carries, a 3.7 yard per attempt average. The other rushers struggled: 57 yards on 23 carries, a 2.5 yard per attempt average.
It’s a small sample size, but no one stretched the field. Webber had the longest run, a pair of 15-yard gains. Wilson’s longest pass was for 10 yards, a touchdown strike to Kaeho Kaakimaka in the third quarter, set up by a fumble recovery.
The growing pains are to be expected after Kealakehe graduated 22 seniors, including 17 who went off to play college ball, taking with them not only talent and depth off the roster, but also big-game experience and the all-important speed element on both sides of the ball.
When the ’Riders put a slotback in motion and ran their toss sweeps, the Cougars, even with a three-man front, contained the perimeter and bottled up ballcarriers before they could turn the corner. When it was smash-mouth time, Keaau brought numbers and crashed down to cause all sorts of congestion at the line of scrimmage.
One trait of a gridiron champion is imposing its will on the opposition. For one short burst, the Waveriders did just that. They ran their jumbo I-formation, which looks like an inverted wishbone, to set up their first touchdown.
On their opening drive, the ’Riders started at their 28-yard line, crossed midfield on a Keaau late hit penalty, and got into the red zone with their jumbo attack. Then Wilson faked a handoff, and raced in for a 13-yard score.
“We went to the jumbo, power I, because our other stuff was not working,” Papalii said. “We haven’t practiced it enough. We had to go away from the jumbo because they were finding creases.”
The ’Riders lost the turnover battle, never a good thing. They had three giveaways to Keaau’s two turnovers. But the Waveriders scored twice on those mistakes: Kaakimaka’s 10-yard touchdown catch and Keanu Tilfas’ 43-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.
Sooner or later, Papalii is hoping to get his best blocker back. Feke Sopoaga-Kioa, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound senior, was an All-BIIF first team pick on the offensive line last season. He’s been out with a knee injury.
There Papalii stood on Saturday, watching the Waveriders sing the school’s alma mater, and thinking about the long road ahead. He knows the regular season is for seeding purposes in the BIIF Division I four-team playoffs. The two most important games are the last two — the league semifinals and the championship.
“We want to peak at the playoffs,” he said. “We’re a long way to being the kind of team we want to be. But we did what we had to do tonight to win.”
Hawaii Prep (2-1 overall, 0-1 BIIF Division II) at Kealakehe (1-1, 1-0 BIIF Division I) at 7 p.m. Saturday
The question for this game is: Who’s the better mechanic?
The Waveriders had their struggles on the offensive side of the ball, but nothing that can’t be fixed in Papalii’s mind. Plus, it always helps to have a few big guys on both sides of the ball — the team’s double-edged sword strength — to inflict damage.
Tui Eli, a 6-4, 250-pound junior, landed on the All-BIIF first team at offensive line last year while Travis Lualemaga, a 6-1, 317-pound senior, was on the first team at defensive line.
They’ll be the numbers — Eli No. 65 and Lualemaga No. 55 — to watch when chasing HPA running back Bobby Lum and quarterback Koa Ellis.
Lum and Ellis had uneven performances in an 18-10 loss to Hilo. Lum was held to 62 yards on 22 carries, a 2.8 yard-per-attempt average. Ellis went 7 of 16 for 84 yards and was sacked six times.
That’s more a reflection of the offensive line in both disciplines: run blocking to open holes and pass blocking to provide a clean pocket. That, too, can be fixed with film study and sharpened technique.
But for those fans interested in who’s the better mechanic, tune in to that battle: Kealakehe’s defensive line vs. HPA’s O-line.
Keaau (0-1, 0-1 BIIF Division I) at Hilo (2-1, 1-0 BIIF Division I) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday
The question for this game is: Who will find a balanced offense first?
Vikings running back Tristin Spikes zipped around the Ka Makani for 157 yards on 22 carries. Sione Atuekaho took over at quarterback in the third quarter and went 4 of 8 for 65 yards.
Cougars quarterback George Lucas-Tadeo completed 21 of 42 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns in the loss to Kealakehe. It would have been 27 of 42 (64 percent), if not for six drops. Keaau’s ground game produced 70 yards on 19 carries.
That’s a fairly productive 3.7 yard-per-rush average. But at a closer glance, it drops to 2.9 yards, if a Lucas-Tadeo scramble for 18 yards is tossed out. The senior QB avoided a handful of sacks, either getting back to the line of scrimmage or throwing the ball.
And if anyone is green around the collar, it’s the Cougars, who went 0-7 in the BIIF last season and played zero preseason games. They have four returning starters on offense (all on the line), and two on defense in nose tackle Zeph Pavao, who plugged holes, and secondary ace Tristan Haskell, who had a fumble recovery against Kealakehe.
The Keaau-Hilo contestants will be jacked up for this Division I matchup because nobody wants to be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and travel to likely No. 1 seed Kealakehe’s home turf, where noisy Waverider Stadium is usually a death sentence for visitors.
That’s one more reason the Waveriders have officially won seven of the last nine league titles.