By JOE FERRARO
HONOKAA — Bobby Embernate wanted his team to fine-tune its passing attack.
Mission accomplished, but not before Honokaa’s ground game and two big special teams plays did much of the heavy lifting Friday in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II contest.
Makana Ibanez returned two punts for touchdowns, while Honokaa’s offense accumulated 145 of their 175 rushing yards in the first half as the Dragons defeated Ka‘u 54-0 at home.
It took just five plays for Honokaa (1-2 BIIF Division II) to march down the field on its first drive of the game.
Senior running back Justen Kawamoto capped the drive by running off tackle for a 12-yard touchdown. Kawamoto helped set up the touchdown with a 26-yard run, and junior Wayne Vaoga ripped off a 20-yard run on the drive.
“Our running game will always be there for us,’’ Embernate said.
The Dragons still flourished on the ground despite two starting linemen — Elrey Tupe (neck) and Triton Reich (ankle) — nursing injuries.
Meanwhile, Ka‘u (0-3, 0-3) netted minus-3 yards on their first three drives, which resulted in a turnover on downs and two punts. Ibanez, a junior quarterback, turned those punts into 42- and 55-yard touchdowns, with the latter giving Honokaa a comfortable 20-0 lead with 5:51 left in the first quarter.
From that point on, Embernate emptied his bench, and all of the Dragons received playing time in the contest.
Kawamoto, who had a 96-yard touchdown run negated by a penalty in the second half, finished with 37 yards on three carries, and senior Michael Higaki finished with 61 yards on four rushes.
But Embernate wanted to see what his underclassmen could do on the football field.
Sophomore Isaiah Batalona-Paiva completed 1 of 4 passes, with his lone completion being a screen pass that Kawamoto turned into a 68-yard touchdown reception.
Senior Damien Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz also received playing time behind center, and he completed 3 of 5 passes for 20 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ty Kauai.
Even though the Dragons wanted to do more through the air on Friday, a Honokaa team that was coming off a tough 19-15 loss to Kamehameha had one simple goal.
“Win,’’ Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz said. “It gets us back into our goal of trying to win that BIIF title.’’
Defensively, Batalona-Paiva, sophomore Paul Purdy Jr., Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz and Kiley Lincoln each had an interception.
“We just wanted to get the younger guys some confidence,’’ Embernate said.
The Trojans gained some confidence later in the first half behind quarterback Chance Emmsley-Ah Yee, who completed 9 of 39 passes for 120 yards.
The sophomore completed four passes during a second quarter drive that began at the Trojan 9, marching Ka‘u to the Honokaa 36. However, Lincoln halted the drive with his interception.
Emmsley-Ah Yee later connected with sophomore Cy Tamura for a 36-yard reception during a seven-play, 55-yard drive in the fourth quarter, but the Dragons’ Jeron Ramos recovered a fumbled snap to end that drive.
Tamura finished with three receptions for 54 yards.
“We did a little better, but we still have a lot of work to do,’’ Trojans assistant coach Donovan Emmsley said.
Ka‘u 0 0 0 0 — 0
Honokaa 27 13 7 7 — 54
Hon — Justen Kawamoto 12 run (Justin Warren kick), 9:53
Hon — Makana Ibanez 42 punt return (Warren kick), 7:31
Hon — Ibanez 55 punt return (run failed), 5:51
Hon — Sione Epenesa 11 run (Warren kick), 2:05
Hon — Caleb Pacheco 1 run (Warren kick), 11:45
Hon — Ibanez 60 run (kick failed), 9.8
Hon — Kawamoto 68 pass from Isaiah Batalona-Paiva (Warren kick)
Hon — Ty Kauai 3 pass from Damien Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz (Warren kick), 4:41