By KEVIN JAKAHI
Last season, George Tadeo took the two best possible routes to improve as a gridiron diehard: playing the toughest competition he could find and working harder than ever.
The Keaau senior quarterback is back in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, after spending last year living with his grandparents and playing for Kingwood High in the Lone Star State, where “football is to Texas what religion is to a priest,” the famous quote by Tom Landry.
Tadeo started as a sophomore for the Cougars, who made their football debut in 2001 and have come relatively close but have never captured a BIIF championship. At Kingwood, he played wide receiver, soaked up valuable lessons
and returned home with a suitcase full of encouragement and enthusiasm.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound signal-caller of Keaau’s split-back, pro-style offense was one of about 20 regulars during the team’s offseason summer workouts. It was the highest participation total in coach Michael Nonies’ four seasons. Nothing makes coaches happier than players treating a particular sport (as well as school work) like an enjoyable full-time job, a concept that Tadeo takes to heart.
“As soon as I came back, I told the guys that players lift weights every day around the nation, and we’ve got to train hard or harder,” he said. “You’ve got to be dedicated, like in any other sport. I came at it as a teammate, encouraging them and bringing a positive attitude and making sure our guys are training hard. We’re working as a team and that’s one of the main things.
“Everybody has a job and you need to execute. You can have a big playbook, but if you don’t execute you can’t do anything. Everything is about teamwork.”
Tadeo returned home not only slightly bigger, but also as a polished public speaker. One of the Texas public school system’s requirements is a speech class. That’s another sharpened tool in Tadeo’s leadership skill set, something that’s second to none and his biggest character trait, according to Nonies.
“Going there opened his eyes to see how much bigger football is over there. But he told me we’re not all that different. What’s different is how they prepare,” Nonies said. “He brought that back. He makes everybody really want to be a team. He tries to prevent cliques on the team. His leadership is his biggest thing. He treats every single person the same, and looks over the team.
“What he learned is something he’s trying to create here. Obviously, it’s made a difference with the closeness of the kids. It’s the unseen things he does. He gets everybody on the same page. I could go on and on about him, and we’ve got lots of kids like that.”
On the opposite side of the ball, junior Kiliona Pomroy is the defensive spark plug. Last year, the 5-10, 238-pound linebacker played on the junior varsity. Like Tadeo, his dedication to the team-first approach showed in his daily appearances as a member of the regular summer workout crew.
“I try to make my teammates want to be here. You’ve got to have spirit and commitment,” said Pomroy, whose older brother Kona Pomroy was a Keaau quarterback in 2009. “If everybody works hard, good things can happen. It’s not an easy thing to do. But we’ve got more commitment and everybody is bonding more as a team.
“Last year, on the junior varsity I didn’t care about winning, but it’s totally different on the varsity. You just don’t want to lose. We have to put in the work and try to get better. Hopefully, my teammates want it as bad as I do.”
Keaau played Kealakehe for the BIIF title in 2005, ‘06, ‘10 and ‘11, and lost each time. The average score was 44-10, with the closest a 32-14 setback in 2010. In that league championship, the Waveriders forced seven turnovers and recorded seven sacks.
But Tadeo views the big-picture goal of football as more than chasing an elusive championship. For history’s sake, the BIIF is winless in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament. The BIIF is 0 for 14; the other leagues (Interscholastic League of Honolulu, Oahu Interscholastic Association and Maui Interscholastic League) have all notched victories.
“Football relates to life. That’s why I encourage my brother (sophomore lineman Tihoti Tadeo) and my close friends to play football,” he said. “Football teaches good morals, like working as a group, being on time, working hard. It all translates to life. You’ve got to work hard. That’s what football teaches. That’s why I love football.”
Tadeo will be tasked with setting up others, handing the ball off or firing strikes to any number of pass catchers. He’ll also have an opportunity to create plays on his own, when the Cougars dial up read-option plays: faking a pitch and running when the defense overflows into the wrong gap.
“I’m comfortable with that. The game is evolving and the zone-read is something I’m pretty comfortable with,” he said. “I can also throw to our two good running backs. They can make plays and we’ve got wide receivers who are big playmakers.”
Justin Quesada and Richard Kanakaole-Hatori both played on the junior varsity last season. The Cougars will rely on both as triple threats: running and catching the ball and blocking for each other.
“We’re hoping to get them in our passing game. They’re good athletes and can run the ball, and catch the ball. We want to take advantage of that,” Nonies said. “They’re quick enough to run inside or outside. With two backs, it gives us an extra blocker.
“We want to air it out. That’s why our backs fit in perfectly. They can catch the ball and will have the same impact if not more than the wide receivers. We want to speed up the tempo.”
Pono Quihano-Makaweo started at quarterback the last three games during last season. He was given the team’s Coaches Award in recognition of his all-around contributions.
“He’s a playmaker. Last year, our running game got swallowed up, but he was the only kid to make yards happen,” Nonies said. “He stepped up for us and he does anything a coach would want him to do.”
Usti Koga saw spot action last year, and the other pass catcher is Colby Espinola, who was on the JV.
“They’ve got the mentality that anything in the air is theirs and they play that way,” Nonies said. “Koga made highlight catches for us last year. Colby is more physical. If the ball is in the air, he’ll go after it.”
The only full-time returning starters are linemen Tyago Mercado, Dustin Liva, Roger Bryant and Kawai Ronia. Zeph Pavao, the BIIF judo heavyweight champion and wrestling runner-up, will also start.
Keaau will throw change-ups with its blocking schemes, going man-on-man one play and maybe zone blocking on the next. The strategy is to keep the defensive front on its toes, and open holes with the line’s strength: running at defenders, leveraging them and relying on speed rather than pure brute strength.
“We don’t have a lot of size. We can’t run up the middle every night,” Nonies said. “We’ll mix things up. It’ll give our athletic guys a chance to find holes, instead of calling each block and waiting to find a hole.
“We’re not going to totally run the read-option because everybody is going to be preparing for it. We’ll run it a little because of our size. But I like to go old-school smash-mouth football once in a while. We want to keep it simple. It should be exciting.”
The Cougars will run the 3-3-5 stack. The benefits are equal parts triangle: more speed on the field, far more confusion for pre-snap offensive reads, and a blanket to cover spread offenses. Keaau can also vary the look with their old 4-2-5, the scheme run by Texas Christian, which routinely ranks as a top defensive team.
However, the drawback to the stack is a pretty big one: physical offensive lines will have a feast if the nose tackle and ends pedal backward, and the linebackers fail to shed second-level blocks and plug running lanes.
The versatile Quihano-Makaweo will be at one end, along with Justin Hong and Mana Awaa. Pavao, a returning starter, can employ some of his wrestling and judo tactics in the trenches at nose tackle.
“We have to control the line. Our guys are quick to the ball,” Nonies said. “Last year, we ran the 4-2-5 and when we watched film we saw that we were easy to predict. In practice, we’ve been making good reads and attacking plays with the 3-3-5.”
Pomroy will be in charge of the middle and flanked by pretty good depth: Espinola, Kahu Donner, Raycen Martinez, and Haaheo Chan, a BIIF judo runner-up and wrestling bronze medalist.
On game film, Nonies noticed when his defense leveraged one way at the last second the offense had picked up clues on the pre-snap read, and already adjusted its blocking calls, trumping what the Keaau coach calls the “chess match” battle.
“We have to control pulling guards and with our linebackers we have to control gaps with our speed,” he said. “I’m really excited about this year’s group. They’re really close. That crew was there all offseason. They bring enthusiasm and toughness. That will help us out a lot.”
While the offense returns four starters, all O-linemen, the defensive side of the ball brings back only two in Pavao and cornerback Tristan Haskell, a rangy defender. Baylen Guerrero and Nate Wong will share the other corner spot.
Isaiah Basque-Chung, a Konawaena transfer, will start at free safety and Koga will spend time in the secondary, too. Donner will be a strong safety/linebacker run stopper.
“Haskell is a solid guy and he can make big plays,” Nonies said. “He’s a big playmaker at corner. On pre-read snaps, it’ll look like he’s on an island by himself. With his experience, that helps and we can have him switch sides to lock down.
“With four Division I teams, we’ll be in the playoffs and we’ll be a strong team at the end of the year, especially with our new stuff in.”