By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
On one side is Hilo, the challenger who has often looked like a champion. On the other side is Kealakehe, the champion who at times hasn’t resembled a contender.
But both coaches are quick to point out that none of that matters anymore.
The Waveriders and Vikings meet at 7 p.m. today at Wong Stadium for the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I football title.
“It’s for real now,” Kealakehe coach Sam Papalii said.
The Vikings last won the league title in 2003, and then the Waveriders (4-5, 4-4 BIIF) began their run of dominance a year later and have won seven of the past nine.
So even as Hilo (9-1, 8-0) went through its season undefeated, coach David Baldwin continued to call the Waveriders the team to beat.
“Kealakehe still holds the Division I title, and until such time that it changes, I have the utmost respect for them,” said Baldwin, who is in his second year. “I think our kids are excited, but humbled. We’re trying to achieve and do something we have not done yet. For us, it’s about what we control.”
While Papalii said his team was as healthy as one could hope for this late in the season, Hilo will be without five players, including three starters, who were suspended for their role in a shoving match that took place in the BIIF semifinals Oct. 18 against Keaau.
Both teams feature stout front sevens on defense and want to establish the run with their quarterbacks, albeit in different manners.
The Waveriders prefer power sets, and quarterback Keoni Yates has a full rotation of backs behind him at his disposal, including Riggs Kurashige. The Vikings spread teams out and run the option. Quarterback Donavan Kelley and running back Tristin Spikes combined for five touchdowns in Hilo’s 41-26 victory Oct. in the semifinals.
Neither offense was all that successful in Hilo’s 6-3 victory on Sept. 28 at Wong Stadium. Kelley accounted for the lone touchdown.
The loss marked Kealakehe’s third in four games, but its offense has evolved as Yates has taken on a bigger role in the offense. For the first time this season, Papalii said Yates took all the “meaningful” snaps in the Waveriders’ 32-14 semifinal win Oct. 19 against Waiakea. The senior added an extra dimension to the offense with 9-of-11 passing to go along with 139 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a player you have to contain and account for,” Papalii said. “He’s got a strong arm and he’s accurate and gives us more balance.
“We’re working on some weapons that we feel like can help us do some things.”
In the first matchup, Hilo’s front seven, led by senior defensive lineman Isi Holani, won the battle up front against Kealakehe’s offensive line, which features a pair of college-ready players in Tavita “Tui” Eli and Feke Sopoaga-Kioa.
The Waveriders have been susceptible to giving up huge chunks of yards through the air this season, but Hilo’s passing game hasn’t been its strong suit, and it attempted only four passes in the team’s first meeting.
Is the three-time league champion ready to give up its title?
“This is Kealakehe. We play for championships,” Papalii said. “But we have a different team this year and we are going to a have to grind it out. We have to match their intensity and let the chips fall where they may.”