By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KAILUA-KONA – As expected, Keoni Yates’ return has added new life to Kealakehe’s offense, and more often than not, the boost he’s provided has come in the form of big plays. Not surprisingly, the Waveriders are feeling better about themselves on the cusp of the playoffs.
Yates ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns Saturday night and Kealakehe took advantage of four Waiakea turnovers for a 31-14 victory during homecoming at Waverider Stadium to wrap up the second seed and a home game in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation football Division I semifinals.
“I bring a different aspect to the offense, another shifty runner,” said Yates, who was playing in his third game of the season. “It’s all a team effort that we’re doing out there. Mixing up the runners is playing a big part in us moving the ball.”
The Waveriders (3-4, 3-3 BIIF) will host Waiakea (2-6, 2-4) again Oct. 19 in the semifinals, and they left the Warriors with something to remember about their ground game. Running behind its talented, veteran offensive line, Kealakehe amassed 318 yards rushing.
“We’re getting closer to what want to do,” coach Sam Papalii said. “We have a complement of backs that can do things. Hopefully, that will continue.”
Kealakehe quarterback Kaimi Wilson handed the ball off to eight different running backs, and Yates was most effective on sweeps. Taking advantage of his speed to get to the outside, the senior had four runs of 24 yards or more, including scampers of 30 and 25 – the second one went for a score – as Kealakehe ran the ball all seven times during a 94-yard touchdown drive.
“He’s an impact player,” Papalii said of Yates.
Louie Garcia had a 63-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up a 38-yard field goal by Yates.
The rest of Kealakehe’s scoring drives were much shorter.
On consecutive possessions in the second quarter, Waiakea fumbled its handoff, and both times Travis Lualemaga was in position for the recovery.
“I thought I worked pretty hard for those,” Lualemaga said when asked if he was merely in the right place at the right time.
The first turnover gave the Waveriders the ball at the Warriors’ 40. Four plays later, Wilson’s 19-yard carry advanced the ball to the 1, and then Yates plowed into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game as Kealakehe took a 21-6 lead at the half.
Earlier in the quarter, Kealakehe took over at Waiakea’s 22 after a short punt, leading to a Riggs Kurashige 5-yard score.
“That’s not fair to our defense to give them the ball on the short side of the field,” Waiakea coach Moku Pita said. “We can’t do that.”
Garcia also had an interception in the third quarter that led to Kobe Antolin’s 4-yard score, and Isaac Sopoaga-Kioa forced a fumble with a sack and recovered it in the fourth quarter.
With its ground game humming, Wilson had a light day throwing, finishing 2 of 5 for nine yards.
Kealakehe’s defense would have had a fifth turnover, but Lualemaga’s roughing-the-passer penalty on Waiakea quarterback Bryce Felipe negated Keanu Tilfas’ 50-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Instead, Waiakea retained possession and two plays later Pono Auwai broke several tackles on a nifty 27-yard scoring run.
“He's hard to tackle,” Pita said of the 5-foot-4 sophomore. “Defenders can’t find him.”
Auwai finished with 76 yards rushing while Devin Preston added 52. Felipe was 5 of 16 for 88 yards, including a scoring strike to George Hanahano III in the fourth quarter.
Both teams have rivalry games ahead of their rematch in the playoffs. Kealakehe hosts Konawaena on Friday, while Waiakea plays Hilo on Saturday.
The Waveriders were seemingly reeling after home losses to Hawaii Prep and Kamehameha earlier in the season, but they’ve since won two of three as they seek their fourth straight BIIF title.
“We don’t expect to be undefeated every year,” Lualemaga said. “We just expect to be at our best at the end of the season, and we’re slowly getting there.”
Waiakea 6 0 0 8 – 14
Kealakahe 0 21 10 0 – 31
Wai – Pono Auwai 27 run (kick failed), 54.5
Keal – Keoni Yates 25 run (Keanu Tilfas run), 10:25
Keal – Riggs Kurashige 5 run (bad snap on conversion), 7:15
Keal – Yates 1 run (Yates kick), 3:26
Keal – Kobe Antolin 4 run (Yates kick), 7:50
Keal – Yates 38 FG, 1:08
Wai – George Hanohano 22 pass from Bryce Felipe (Devin Preston pass from Felipe), 5:37