By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Sam Papalii has a long history coaching football, serving as an assistant at the University of Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Iowa State and UNLV, building a lifetime of knowledge and understanding how to move the chess pieces on the gridiron.
He started the dynasty at Kealakehe, bringing home the program’s first Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship in 2004, after finishing as the runner-up the previous two seasons.
The Waveriders won the crown the next year and under different coaches the following two seasons. He returned last year and coached the West Hawaii powerhouse to another BIIF title, officially the team’s seventh in the last nine years.
Kamehameha (2-2 overall, 1-1 BIIF) travels to play Kealakehe (1-2, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. today at Waverider Stadium.
In interviews, it’s rare for Papalii to be tackled for a loss. Ask a question and the engaging Kealakehe coach fires back with a straight and thoughtful answer. But one query had him stumped: If he had only one choice of size, speed or experience what would he pick?
“Good question,” said Papalii, then turning into a politician. “You want a little bit of the first two. And we all know what happened here in 2009 at Kealakehe, that interruption. And we had the title taken away in 2008.”
In 2008, the Waveriders were stripped of the league championship for using an ineligible player and all their wins were wiped out. In 2009, Honokaa upset a bigger, faster Kealakehe football factory for the title. That didn’t happen under Papalii’s watch; Gary Clark was coach back then.
Nona Ambrosio, who was named the BIIF Division I Defensive Player of the Year, typified that 2009 Honokaa squad, which captured its first championship in 35 years. He stood 5 feet, 6 inches and weighed 170 pounds and played middle linebacker.
He didn’t have a lot of size and wasn’t all that fast. But he roared in his junior season because he was football savvy. Ambrosio could figure out the right running gap, build up a head of steam, and slam into the hole for a tackle. In pass coverage, he followed commands from defensive coordinator Bobby Embernate (now the Dragons coach) and Cal Lee’s motto.
The former UH assistant and long-time Saint Louis coach often preached: Football is all about alignment and assignment. Be in the right place and when the ball comes your way make a play.
In Ambrosio’s case, experience was his biggest weapon. His size and speed were secondary assets. Sometimes, the best players are the smartest and most experienced ones and lead underdogs to long-awaited championships.
His partner on the other side of the ball, Honokaa quarterback Sage Johnson was pretty much the same way. He was 5-10 and 170 pounds. But Johnson’s production in his senior season earned him the BIIF Division I Offensive Player of the Year.
History lesson aside, Papalii pointed out the value of size and speed.
“With size and speed you can overcome anything, even a lack of experience,” he said. “We’ve done that before in 2004 and 2005. We were rebuilding those years and didn’t have close to the linemen we have now. We had one in Bo Montgomery and really good role players. But we didn’t have guys like Tuli Eli or Feke Sopoaga-Kioa (two Division I prospects).
“It’s what you do with speed and size. You can be fast but get overwhelmed in other ways, and you can be big but not good at anything. If I had to go with one, it would be experience because they’ve been there before (in big games). They know what to do. You don’t have to coach them up. They coach each other and do the things that need to be done to win. That’s what experience brings.”
On the flip side of the coin, inexperience brings growing pains, alignment-and-assignment problems, and missed scoring opportunities.
In the Waveriders 34-21 home loss to Hawaii Prep on Saturday, they gave up two long touchdowns, on a kickoff return and screen pass. That flipped Kealakehe’s second quarter 15-14 lead into a 28-15 deficit right before halftime.
Papalii acknowledged that the some members of the kickoff team got out of their running lanes, and someone was in the wrong place on the screen pass, usually a play designed for roughly 7 yards. Also in the first half, the running backs read the wrong hole and couldn’t cash in on a pair of red-zone scoring opportunities.
That’s all due to inexperience, the sixth-year coach sighed.
“This year we’re as green as can be,” he said. “We’ve got 18 new starters and it’s showing. We don’t have speed and it’s showing. That’s our problem. We lost all our speed from last year. It’s the growing pains of a young team.”
However, the ’Riders are getting a boost with the return of Sopoaga-Kioa (knee injury) and running back/kicker Keoni Yates, who according to Papalii has 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash, a tick behind Jordan Cristobal.
Cristobal was last season’s quarterback and one of 22 graduated seniors and among the 17 players who went on to play college ball. He’s at Butte (Calif.) College, Papalii said, though he’s not listed on the roster.
“I’m always surprised when we lose, especially at home,” Papalii said. “But I always believe we’ll find a way back. We had four turnovers in the game. This team, we’re going to grind for everything we get. We want to peak at the playoffs. That’s what it’s all about.”
For the Warriors, they have their own set of questions: Are they the inconsistent penalty-prone team (over 100 yards in both games) that often battles itself? Or are they consistent enough with a rushing attack that can overcome errors, like when they play a press defense and give up big-play touchdowns?
One comforting fact for Kamehameha is senior running back Ina Teofilo’s production. He rushed for 129 yards on 30 attempts in a 27-25 win over Waiakea, and 181 yards on 32 carries in the 37-3 loss to Konawaena.
Honokaa (0-3, 0-2) at Hilo (3-1, 2-0) at 7 p.m. today
Sooner or later, Vikings quarterback Donavan Kelley is going to get comfortable as a pocket passer. Then it’s going to get fun for Hilo’s offense, exploiting matchups. He’ll become the run-pass threat that Drew Kell (now a senior playing ball in Oregon) was last year.
Last season, Kelley was a sophomore receiver/running back and backup QB to Kell, but ran the ship as the junior varsity’s signal-caller as a freshman. He’s still learning on the job, but the skill-set, mostly the running part, is apparently there.
Kelley pulled off a rare accomplishment after last season. He landed on the All-BIIF Division I first team at receiver and honorable mention at running back.
As a runner, he’s similar in speed to Tristin Spikes, who zipped for 164 yards on 14 attempts against Keaau in a 35-7 win. Kelley ran for 85 yards, including a crowd-pleasing 59-yard score, on just six carries last Saturday at Wong Stadium.
As a passer, Kelley shows a strong arm, good enough to put the ball on a string on any 10-yard sideline pattern — a throw that travels a long distance and allows a smart cornerback to jump the route, if the quarterback has a weak arm.
It’s his accuracy that needs a little work, mostly minor touches to clean up his footwork. He went 2 of 6 for 19 yards with a touchdown and a pick. Kelley threw a nice, perfectly placed 9-yard scoring strike to tag-team QB/receiver Sione Atuekaho in the first quarter, confirming his skill-set.
Over on the other sideline, it hasn’t been a fun season so far for the scoreless Dragons, who fell hard to Kona 45-0 on the road, and trailed 2-0 at halftime and eventually lost 15-0 to Waiakea in Week 1.
Sione Epenesa continues to breathe the strongest fire for Honokaa. He rushed for 58 yards on nine carries against the Wildcats, and 148 yards on 21 attempts against the Warriors.