Hilo senior Ku‘i Mortensen was a starter at cornerback last season, but he wasn’t a member of the defense’s Great Wall of Seven, a combination of linemen and linebackers considered to be one of the best in school history and the league.
Of the seven defenders, four (linemen Isi Holani, Makana Josue-Maa and linebackers Sione Holika, Ofa Fahiua) landed on the All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I first team.
There was a lot of head scratching from the Viking faithful that the other three (linemen Michael Williams, Jon Salzman and linebacker Suwaiter Poch) weren’t acknowledged, and didn’t even get a nod at All-BIIF honorable mention.
Even head man Dave Baldwin got snubbed for BIIF coach of the year honors. All he did was take over a winless team in 2011, and in Year 2 of the Baldwin Program pilot the Vikings to their first league title since 2003.
Baldwin was coach of the year in 2012 – when Hilo didn’t win the BIIF crown.
To borrow one of Bill Belichick’s famous lines, “It is what it is.”
In that case, at least three defensive starters, each with All-BIIF recognition, bring back their experience and play-making to the field. Mortensen and Fahiua were on the first team, and Haili Mahoe received honorable mention; all are seniors.
If defense wins championships, that’s reason No. 1 why Baldwin’s favorite subject last year was talking about his front seven.
“That was one of the best front sevens I’ve ever coached, and one of the top front sevens in history at Hilo,” he said. “We’ve got returnees in the secondary and young linemen and linebackers. They’ve got potential, but potential has to meet performance.”
The last line of defense will star Mortensen, Mahoe, Melvin Kikau, and Donavan Kelley, a two-time All-BIIF first team receiver.
Baldwin is betting that Kelley will be more valuable as a run-stopping safety, who relies on his receiving skills to snag interceptions in center field.
“He can quickly diagnose a play if it’s a run or pass, in or out, curl or streak. I think he can play at the next level in the secondary,” Baldwin said. “He’ll primarily be on defense, and we’ll stick him on special teams. He can make plays on the ball, defend and get interceptions, and he’s aggressive.”
As the veteran, Mortensen will most likely draw the opposition’s No. 1 receiver. He can also dish some sound advice to Kikau, the other corner.
“We have to be fast in reading the play and the ball,” said Mortensen, who already has his immediate future figured out. “In our system, we have to play together as a team, and we always have to communicate with each other what we’re doing in the game. We always have to remember what we practiced.”
Mortensen is a member of the Latter-day Saints, and plans to major in agriculture or business at either BYU-Hawaii or the University of Hawaii. He also plans to take a two-year Mormon mission.
If last season’s defense was known as the Great Wall of Seven, maybe Mortensen can help lead the way for his entire unit to get recognized. That would satisfy a head-scratching itch if all 11 Vikings made it to the All-BIIF team.
“A lot of people said the front seven did really well,” he said. “This year, we’re practicing hard together, and have speed and strength, and can cover. I think we’ll have the same defense on the front seven and the back side.”
OK, bring in the new guys. David Pakele, Tausaia Pola, Seth Fukushima, Isaiah Young and Jimmy Rosas will rotate in the trenches in Hilo’s gap-control 4-3 system.
None has the size of their predecessors, but Baldwin believes if the first-time starters follow Pakele’s lead then gaps will be plugged, tackles made, and first downs denied.
“D-line is our most swapped position. Pakele goes hard and is working to be a force,” Baldwin said. “He’s difficult to stop. He’s able to penetrate almost every down he chooses to. We have to find a way to get him in every scheme because of his aggressiveness.”
Ofa’s back, so that really helps – big-time. Fahiua had some kind of monster game last year in the BIIF championship against Kealakehe, which lost 21-10 at Wong Stadium, where the Waveriders’ three-year title reign disappeared.
Fahiua piled up a half-dozen tackles, got a sack, one fumble strip-and-recovery in the red zone, and two interceptions, including one for a pick-six – the first of his gridiron career.
Kiliona Pomroy, a Keaau transfer, adds a much-needed physical presence. Some of the Viks probably remember him as a Cougar with his run-you-over style at tailback.
Malu Lapilio played some tough fullback last year, and he knows all about plowing people, too. Baldwin describes him as a gridiron predator.
“I don’t think we lose much from last year. Our linebacking corps has size and speed,” Baldwin said. “Sione Holika was our defensive coordinator in pads. I’m hoping Malu can give us that. He starves for contact, and he’s always hungry.”
There’s a load of experience with six returning starters: quarterback Sione Atuekaho, running back Tristin Spikes, wide receivers Shelton Lerma and Jordan Caoagdan, center Sawyer Salfen and tackle Kacey Hall.
Actually, the number jumps to seven if Kelley is included. The slippery speedster could make a guest appearance at receiver or running back.
Atuekaho, a second-year starter, will be in charge of Hilo’s spread offense, a zone-read option, and read-and-react system where offensive plays are dictated by what the defense does.
For example, if corners jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Vikings will run a streak. If the defense goes with a soft zone, then Atuekaho will throw 5-yard darts on curl routes all day or night to his catch-and-go crew.
“We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” Baldwin said.
On a recent hot day at Hilo’s venerable school track, which doubles as the Vikings’ make-do practice field, Spikes stood out from all his teammates with a bright red hat. It had a big “T” on the front, and unless you’re a baseball fan you’d probably be clueless that the “T” was for the Texas Rangers.
The hat is a tribute to his first cousin Keone Kela, a right-hander in the Rangers’ farm system, who’s rated as the 14th top prospect, according to mlb.com. Kela’s fastball has hit triple digits, and he throws a wicked slider, too.
Spikes is similar in style, fast with shifty moves. From last year, he added an inch in height and 20 pounds of muscle. Once a little guy, he’s now 5-feet-9 and 195 pounds.
“We’ve got talented guys on offense,” he said. “Our O-line is great. We lost some big guys, but we know we can still do what we did last year. We’ll open things up more with our passing game. I’m sure they’ll give me the ball. If it’s in the air, I’ll catch and run.”
His dream college is Arizona. Spikes has a 3.0 grade-point average and has already put up a profile on ncsasports.org. He’d like to major in business or sports management.
“He’s got athletic ability, size and strength, and he got bigger and didn’t lose any speed,” Baldwin said. “He’s understanding the offense, how to get what and when. That’s been the biggest difference for him. With his decision-making on the field, then his athletic ability will take over. He has all the God-given traits to be dominant.”
The Vikings lost two All-BIIF first team linemen in John Funaki and Jason Tara-Antone. The 300-pound bulldozers helped Spikes rack up 1,227 yards last season.
Salfen, an honorable mention, and Hall are back. Pakele, Fukushima, Chandler Kelii and Jimmy Rosas will take turns in the five spots, trying to live up to the high bar of last year’s O-line.
“They’re the hardest working group. They’re dedicated to their profession,” Baldwin said. “Our standout guy is Hall. He’ll anchor the line, and provide much needed seconds for our QB. His fundamentals are a big key.”
The Vikings, arguably, have the most decorated combination of old-and-new assistants coaching the O-line in Samson Kela, who’s been around for decades, and Jordan Loeffler, the former UH lineman and a 2009 Hilo graduate.
“I have high expectations for the line because we’ve got quality coaches,” Baldwin said.
Lerma and Caoagdan aren’t that tall at 5-8, but they have the No. 1 quality that all receivers should have: Sure hands. They don’t drop the ball. Both are good route runners and find ways to get open, especially the elusive Caoagdan.
Kaonohiokala Botelho and Keola Ahuna-Kelekolio are 6-1, 6-2, respectively, and Brad Comilla and Cohlby Espaniola, a Keaau transfer, are also taller than 6 feet. That’s a lot of jump ball options in the red zone for the team’s tall trees.
“Our wide receivers can go get the ball. They’ve got some size, and shake and bake,” Baldwin said. “They gain yards after the catch. Shelton looks different. He’s athletic and is probably our most precise route runner. It’s the way he’s moving now. He’s got that confidence and he’s really deceptive.”
The Vikings are confident that they can withstand the loss of their Great Wall of Seven. They’re confident that they’re better than a year ago, when they lost to Campbell 42-27 in the first round of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
For motivation, Mortensen looks in the rear-view mirror.
“We’ve come a long way. We tried for the BIIF title and failed (in 2012), and the next year we won BIIFs,” he said. “We failed at states (in the first round). This year, hopefully, we can go farther than that.”
Editor’s note: This is the second of an 11-part BIIF football preview series by the Tribune-Herald.
The series started Saturday with Waiakea, followed by Hilo on Sunday.
Kamehameha will run in Monday’s T-H, followed by Keaau (Tuesday), Pahoa (Wednesday), Ka’u (Thursday), Honokaa (Friday), HPA (Aug. 30), Kohala (Aug. 31), Konawaena (Sept. 1) and Kealakehe (Sept. 2).