By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEALAKEKUA – Konawaena coach Cliff Walters saw it as a bobbled handoff.
Hilo senior Makana Josue-Ma‘a gave teammate Isi Holani credit for a strip.
Holani, however, wasn’t going to confirm or deny his role in the game-changing fumble.
“A dream play happened there,” the defensive lineman said.
On that, all of the Vikings can agree.
Josue-Ma‘a scooped up a loose ball near midfield and scored the winning touchdown with just more than two minutes left Friday night as Hilo stunned the Wildcats 21-16 in a matchup between the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s only football unbeatens at Julian R. Yates Field.
“We were trying to strip the ball,” Josue-Ma‘a said. “I looked behind me, and once I saw the running back when I picked up the ball, I turned on the jets.
“Our defense is one-of-a-kind.”
As was the key sequence.
Nursing a two-point lead, Konawaena was looking for one first down to run out the clock when it took over after stopping Hilo on downs. But on second-and-8 from the Vikings’ 44, quarterback Brandon Howes faked to Bubba Noa-Ellis and gave to Dishon Cho on a play designed to go around the outside. But Cho lost the ball, and Josue-Ma‘a had clear sailing to the end zone, where he was mobbed by teammates.
“Never had that happen before,” Walters said. “Some teams have luck, today we didn’t and they did.”
In successive games, Hilo (7-1, 6-0 BIIF) has beaten both of the league’s defending champions. Last week, the Vikings’ defense paved the way for a 6-3 win against three-time Division I champion Kealakehe.
“Those teams have fulfilled goals that we have yet to achieve,” Hilo coach David Baldwin said. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Our kids really respect our opponents for what they accomplished and what they’ve been able to do against us.”
In beating the two-time Division II champion Wildcats (6-2, 5-1), Hilo avenged a 38-24 loss in the teams’ preseason meeting at Wong Stadium.
This time, the Vikings held Konawaena’s prolific offense to its lowest point total of the season, allowing only a pair of Howes touchdown passes and a 40-yard John Replogle field goal. The Wildcats rushed for just 24 yards, thanks to five Hilo sacks.
“I think we just played smarter (this time),” said Hilo senior Michael Williams, a defensive lineman/linebacker. “We watched a lot of film and studied. We just shut them down on the line. We never stop grinding.”
Howes’ hit Cameron Howes, his brother, for a 25-yard score early in the fourth quarter to give Konawaena a 16-7 lead.
Trailing by two scores for the first time, Hilo finally got its running game on track. Tristin Spikes broke off a 46-yard run to set up Malu Lapilio’s 17-yard touchdown.
“The defense came up big, but when we needed our offense, we executed,” said Josue-Ma‘a, a linebacker/defensive lineman. “We have the fourth-quarter mentality to always overcome our performance. From our perspective, I saw that Konawaena was tired.
“I have to give it to them. They are a really tough team. I think the two best teams (on the island) clashed today.”
Spikes, who scored on a 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, finished with 117 of Hilo’s 186 yards on the ground. That was just enough to make up for the Vikings’ work-in-progress passing game. Sione Atuekaho finished 6 of 19 for 88 yards and an interception, while Donavan Kelley had three catches for 53 yards.
Walter argued unsuccessfully that Konawaena was denied a play on its final drive of the game after he said officials failed to replay first down after a holding penalty. As it was, Holani then dropped Howes for a 14-yard loss, putting Konawaena in a 3rd-and-41 hole from its 10. Chase Takaki made up 25 yards with a catch over the middle, but Hilo took over on downs.
“This is a very humbling loss,” Walters said, “and a humbling loss makes you refocus.”
Both teams will get ready to play their crosstown rival during the final week of the regular season – Konawaena visits Kealakehe on Friday, while Hilo plays Waiakea at Wong on Saturday – before heading to their respective playoffs as the top seeds.
Howes was 20 of 35 for 221 yards and interception. His favorite target was Luca Vartic, who caught five passes for 107 yards.
Cho hauled in a 4-yard touchdown catch on 4th-and-2 on the game’s opening drive, and his 60-yard punt return set up Replogle’s field goal late in the first quarter.
That gave Konawaena a 10-7 lead, and it stayed that way until the fourth quarter.
“Our program values and goals, we train for the fourth quarter,” Baldwin said. “That’s what we practice for, that’s what we play for. Can we move at a speed with strength in the fourth quarter like we just started the game?
“Tonight, those program values and goals showed up on the field. That’s what was satisfying as a coach. To see the players reach that understanding, to turn a corner, feels good.”
Hilo 7 0 0 14 –21
Konawaena 10 0 0 6 –16
Kona – Dishon Cho 4 pass from Brandon Howes (John Replogle kick), 9:29
Hilo – Tristin Spikes 2 run (Rayce Takayesu kick), 3:42
Kona – Replogle 40 FG, 2:12
Kona – Cameron Howes 25 pass from Brandon Howes (kick blocked), 9:40
Hilo – Malu Lapilio 17 run (Takayesu kick), 5:49
Hilo –Makana Josue-Ma‘a 52 fumble return (Takayesu kick), 2:01