Konawaena head coach Cliff Walters says that the theme throughout the roster is “multiuse.” His quarterback might throw a pass one play and catch a touchdown the next. A defensive end might not only rush the passer, but also tote the rock.
The Wildcats lost many key players from a squad that won its third straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title last season, but a solid core of returning and rising stars is eager to keep Konawaena on top.
“The turnover is always huge,” Walters said. “It’s hard. We are a small school. When you have even one guy out it can be a serious issue, but we always find a way to make it work.”
The most obvious departure from the Wildcats roster is quarterback Brandon Howes, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards his senior season and is now playing college ball at Pacific University.
The Wildcats don’t have time to linger in the past — the team is focused on the future. Brandon’s younger brother, Cameron Howes, is in a heated competition with senior Shelton Grace for who will get the majority of snaps in 2014.
“We have a dispute right now,” Walters said. “It is a real battle.”
Walters said both quarterbacks have capable arms, athletic ability to escape pressure, and the football IQ to play the most crucial position in the Wildcats offense.
“Each one has something the other doesn’t have, so we expect that we will use both,” he said. “Both are excellent receivers as well, so they will always be on the field on our offense.”
Defenders better make sure to strap up their chinstraps when they go in for a tackle on 5-foot-8, 2o5-pound Konawaena running back Bubba Ellis-Noa. The returning All-BIIF back embraces contact and is a handful to take down in the open field.
“Bubba is one of the best football players I have seen in a long time,” Walters said. “He is deceptively quick, extremely tough and he will hit you. We have had some hitters in the past, but he takes it to another level.”
Despite also playing full time at linebacker — where he was also an All-BIIF selection in 2013 — Ellis-Noa is a workhorse back.
“He embraces getting the ball,” said Walters. “If I gave it to him every play, he would be thrilled to death.”
However, the Wildcats do have other solid options. Among them, Tate Hing (5-5, 185), a player Walters affectionately refers to as “Little Bubba.”
“You may look at his size and think he is a little too small, but he packs a punch,” Walters said.
Koa Basque is a standout player on defense, but will also be a weapon running the ball. If the Wildcats are depleted, Walters said he has no qualms about giving the speedy Basque the ball.
While not behind center, Howes and Grace will receive reps at wide receiver.
The system worked effectively in a preseason win against Kauai, with the highlight being a 15-yard strike from Howes to Grace for a touchdown — the only touchdown through the air in the contest.
The Wildcats have an abundance of athletes who will line up at receiver, most notably returning first-team All-BIIF selection Luca Vartic (6-2, 200). The junior pass-catcher finished second at the state meet in the 100-meter and has the speed to leave opponents in the dust. He also has the size to get yards after the catch, and carry the ball on end-arounds and bubble screens.
Kevin Medeiros (5-11, 180) is another weapon in the Wildcats arsenal. The senior wide receiver is expected to get a good chunk of the throws.
While the core of Wildcat receivers is returning, Walters said the biggest surprise in the preseason has been Tristan Fleming-Nazara.
“All of a sudden, he has turned it on,” Walters said. “He brings a great attitude and is a pleasure to coach. In practice, he has been catching everything. He is making our quarterbacks look good.”
Phillip Grace and Kayson Mahiai will also play a role in the passing game.
The offensive line has Walters excited, and the veteran head coach is not shy about making a bold statement about his hogs up front.
“This is the best offensive line we have had,” Walters said. “They are smart, they know what they are doing and coach John Kaiwi really has them going.”
Sophomore center Zachary Kaiwi (5-11, 225) is the only returning offensive lineman.
“He went in there as a freshman and opposing defenses would line up over him and he would take a beating,” Walters said. “But he hung in there, and now he has got the skill and knows how to take care of the ball. The progression has been very nice.”
Accompanying Kaiwi will be Toni Finau (5-8, 270), Akoni Gouveia-Medeiros (6-0, 175), Vicente Cancino (6-3, 225) and Markus Banagan (5-8, 180).
With 2013 BIIF Division II Defensive Player of the Year Makoa Chapa transferring to Saint Louis in the offseason, the Wildcats will have to depend on Banagan and Austin Santos-Johnson to hold down the tackle spots.
“Markus tore it up for us against Kauai,” Walters said. “He did extremely well, and we expect he will be a great player for us.”
At defensive end, Medeiros is locked in, but there is a position battle brewing on the other side between Torin Tuppein and Jake Unger.
Tuppein excelled for the Wildcats in the preseason, and earned an edge with his stellar play. The junior racked up five tackles and two sacks in the second half against Kauai.
Despite Ellis-Noa’s production on offense, he may be even more of a factor on the defensive side of the ball.
“Linebacker is where he really shines,” Walters said. “He wants to destroy you as soon as you get the ball.”
Fellow running backs Basque and Hing will also play both ways for the Wildcats. Basque got the nod as an All-BIIF honorable mention at defensive end last year, so he should provide some pass rushing ability on the outside.
Walters believes he has a shutdown corner in Kaneala Kaaihue (5-9, 148). Vartic and Mahiai also give the Wildcats speedy options at corner. Juniors Phillip Grace and Mahina Ellis-Noa will also see time at corner.
Holding down the strong safety spot is Nalu Loando, and opposite him will be Kalalena Santiago at free safety.
John Replogle was an All-State selection at kicker last season and his leg made the Wildcats a threat to put up points from afar. But Replogle took his big leg with him when he graduated.
While the rain affected the field conditions, the Wildcats kicking game looks like a nonfactor so far. Cameron Howes has added kicking to his duties this season, but in two preseason extra point attempts, he missed one and had another blocked.
Medeiros garnered an All-BIIF honorable mention at punter last season, but may be given a run for his money from Cancino.
Howes and Vartic will return kicks.