By JOE FERRARO
HONOKAA — Somebody had to take the pressure off workhorse running back Justen Kawamoto, the player all Honokaa opponents try to stop on a weekly basis.
So Dragons coach Bobby Embernate challenged Michael Higaki, telling him he “needed to step up.’’
Embernate received the performance he wanted from the senior Friday night at Honokaa High.
Higaki rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns, and caught a touchdown pass as Honokaa defeated Hawaii Prep 55-7 in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II football game.
“(The coaches) said they’d give me a chance, and I made the most of it,’’ Higaki said.
Higaki was just part of a Honokaa running attack that ran the ball at will in the first half, when the Dragons (5-1 BIIF Division II, 6-2 overall) racked up 210 of their 275 rushing yards and scored on their first four drives.
Higaki did much of his damage on misdirection plays. On one of them, he raced down the right left sideline for a 53-yard touchdown run and a 21-0 Dragons advantage with 1 minute, 42 seconds left in the first quarter. On another, he scored on a 13-yard run that made it 34-0 with 41.5 seconds left in the first half, essentially putting the Ka Makani (3-3, 3-5) away.
Kawamoto, who ran through a tackle by the Ka Makani’s Joey Kailimai to score a 7-yard touchdown run on the Dragons’ first drive, still carried the biggest load in the backfield, finishing with 106 yards on 16 carries.
Higaki took on the role of the team’s No. 2 rushing option from Sione Epenesa, who started his first game at quarterback.
Epenesa still made contributions as a runner, scoring a touchdown and getting most of his 58 yards between the tackles, where he got a solid push from center Triton Reich and guard Elrey Tupe.
Higaki said he found room to run outside the tackles because of Epenesa’s ability to run the ball inside.
“I thought our offensive line would be more physical than (HPA’s) line, and they proved it tonight,’’ Embernate said.
The Honokaa coach said he moved Epenesa to quarterback because he liked the sophomore’s ability to stand tall in the pocket on pass plays.
Epenesa threw the ball just five times but proved effective when he did, firing touchdowns on all three of his completions.
Under heavy pressure on a fourth-and-9 play from HPA’s 32-yard line, Epenesa found Higaki in the flat, and the senior shook tackles by Kaimi Stevens and Justin Perry before tight-roping the right sideline and scoring a first-quarter touchdown.
In the second quarter, Epenesa hit Ty Kauai on a quick slant, and the senior corralled a deflection while being covered tightly by the Ka Makani’s Blake Hooser and ran into the end zone for a 14-yard score.
Epenesa then made an accurate throw to Damien Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz on a deep out pattern in the third quarter, and the Dragon senior wideout turned it into a 64-yard touchdown reception.
Epenesa said he thought he’d play fullback for the entire season but welcomed being in a position of leadership at quarterback.
“Whatever I can do to help the team,’’ Epenesa said.
Honokaa’s defense did its part, limiting HPA to just 58 yards of offense in the first half and 158 for the game, and forcing five turnovers.
Linebacker Wayne Vaoga and defensive lineman Kalani Benanua applied heavy pressure on HPA quarterbacks Koa Ellis and Lii Purdy, and Isaiah Batalona-Paiva had an interception.
Ellis finished 6 of 11 for 40 yards with a touchdown — a 21-yard strike to Nicolas Palleschi in the third quarter — and an interception. Purdy was 0 of 6.
HPA fared better on the ground, with junior running back Bobby Lum gaining 94 hard-earned yards on 18 carries.
Blake Hooser returned a kickoff 72 yards in the closing seconds of the first half, giving the Ka Makani possession at the Honokaa 20. But the Ka Makani netted minus-5 yards in the final three plays of the half.
Hawaii Prep 0 0 7 0 — 7
Honokaa 21 13 14 7 — 55
Hon — Justen Kawamoto 7 run (Justin Warren kick), 7:52
Hon — Michael Higaki 32 pass from Sione Epenesa (Warren kick), 3:48
Hon — Higaki 53 run (Warren kick), 1:42
Hon — Ty Kauai 14 pass from Epenesa (Warren kick), 7:34
Hon — Higaki 13 run (run failed), 41.5
Hon — Damien Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz 64 pass from Epenesa (Warren kick), 10:53
Hon — Epenesa 6 run (Warren kick), 6:29
HPA — Nicolas Palleschi 21 pass from Koa Ellis (Justin Perry kick), 3:37
Hon — Paul Purdy 8 run (Warren kick), 6:08