Kealakehe finds itself in an unfamiliar position entering the 2014 Big Island Interscholastic Federation football season — on the comeback trail.
The perennial BIIF Division I powerhouse parted ways with veteran head coach Sam Papalii (38-13 BIIF regular season record, three BIIF titles) at the end of last season after the team finished with a 4-5 BIIF overall record and was outmatched against Hilo in the title game. The program finished with a losing record for the first time since beginning varsity play in 1999 — with the exception of 2008, when its wins and league title were vacated because of an ineligible player.
In the offseason, the school brought in Sam Kekuaokalani as Papalii’s successor. Kekuaokalani is a familiar face around the program. When former coach Gary Clark took a leave of absence in 2011, Kekuaokalani served as the interim head coach, leading Kealakehe to a perfect record and the Division I BIIF title. He also serves as the basketball coach and a teacher at the school.
Kekuaokalani said he respects the foundation laid by previous coaches, but he is ready to put his own stamp on the program.
A lot is going to look different out of the gate for the Waveriders. The spread offense Kekuaokalani implemented in 2011 is back, and the defense will have a 3-4 look.
“It is the offense that Gary Clark first installed, that Urban Meyer spread offense,” said Kekuaokalani. “We have to put points on the board.”
Kekuaokalani’s main focus is off the field, and stresses that success in the classroom will lead to tallies in the win column.
“As we work on the character and academic side of things, we are also working on the Xs and Os,” said Kekuaokalani. “There is a direct correlation there. You cannot sacrifice either of those parts. We are looking for a balance”
Here is a breakdown of Kealakehe’s 2014 football team:
Last year’s starting junior varsity quarterback Sequoia Iona was projected to start the season behind center for the Waveriders, but Markus Degrate showed the coaches enough in a preseason matchup against Maui and in practice to earn the starting job.
Degrate — a junior who also plays shortstop on the Kealakehe baseball team — has a good arm and is more than capable of escaping from pressure in the pocket. However, it will be a work-in-process. This is Degrate’s first year playing high school football.
Tuitahi Faleofa-Taumoefolau and Ini Paio should get the bulk of the carries.
Both Faleofa-Taumoefolau and Paio are much bigger backs than Riggs Kurashige, the most experienced back the Waveriders have returning. However, Riggs will be playing primarily in the slot.
If needed, Kurashige can carry the ball. At 5-feet-4 and 140 pounds, he brings a different style than the duo of bigger backs, but he demonstrated he can be a go-to back. In 2013, Kurashige’s breakout game came against HPA, when he carried the ball 19 times for 186 yards.
Kealakehe was known for its smash mouth style under Papalii, but the mentality of run-first may be something of the past. Kekuaokalani referenced his time in 2011 running the spread as the example of what his offense will bring.
“We are looking to get the ball in the air,” Kekuaokalani said. “The receivers are going to have a big role in the offense, along with the slots.”
The Waveriders will still look to gain yardage with the ground game out of the spread, but depth at receiver should help a developing passing game. Elijah Brouwer and Kaimi Wilson will play at the wide receiver spots, while Iona and Kurashige will capitalize on their quickness as slotbacks. Ari Mench and Keoki Haserot should also make good targets for Degrate.
Kealakehe lost two major weapons on the offensive line in Tui Eli and Feke Sopoaga-Kioa. Both are now playing Division I football — Eli at the University of Hawaii and Sopoaga-Kioa at Utah.
“We lost a lot of experience, but the line looks good,” Kekuaokalani said.
Peni Kalavi, who is also an athletic big man on the basketball team, should be a monster up front and the anchor of the O-line. Senior Jordan Giddens-Paio — who Kekuaokalani singled out as a player to watch — will play center. Amari Keliiholokai, Josiah Kia and Haloti Aholelei round out the unit.
Peni’s brother, Abraham Kalavi, brings similar size as his sibling and could see some reps this season.
Kealakehe not only has to plug up the holes to stop an opponent’s running game, but also fill the void on its defense line after losing two-time first-team All-BIIF selection Travis Lualemaga to graduation.
The loss was evident in a preseason matchup against Maui. The Sabers’ Wing-T offense only threw the ball twice in the matchup, and a depleted Waveriders squad could not stop the relentless ground game.
“They were coming at us,” Kekuaokalani said. “We had a lot of youth on the field and didn’t have a lot of depth because of academic ineligibility. But it was a great test for us though to see where we were at and what little things we need to change.”
In the middle, junior defensive tackle Howard Cosare will split time at nose tackle with Isaac Sopoaga-Kioa.
On the ends, Kealakehe will depend on sophomore Mason Kaawa-Loa and returning All-BIIF selection junior Joseph Kaopua (6-1, 210).
An athletic group of linebackers is expected to be the core of the defense, reading and reacting in the run game, and being able to drop back and cover pass-catchers when needed.
“We have got the linebacker personnel to move and execute in the 3-4,” Kekuaokalani said. “We have run that 4-3 in the past, but I think right now we are just as comfortable in the 3-4.”
Returning players Kainoa Piltz and Kobe Antolin will all see time as middle linebackers, while Bronson Cariaga and Rylen McComber will bring pressure from their outside linebacker spots.
“We have got a pretty good rotation, and will have some depth,” Kekuaokalani said.
Senior Shaden Lewi will be a player to watch at safety for the Waveriders. Lewi brings the athletic ability that made him a standout on the Kealakehe basketball team and leadership qualities that will allow him to quarterback the defense from his safety spot.
Keoki Myers and Klein Hao will play at cornerback, and Louie Garcia will play the other safety. Garcia earned recognition at wide receiver last season as an All-BIIF honorable mention and has the speed and ball skills to make some noise opposite Lewi.
“We have got a really good chemistry with the defensive backs,” Kekuaokalani said. “They work together well and hold each other accountable.”
Mench, will do the kicking for the Waveriders.
Kekuaokalani said the punter position is still up in the air, but Iona and Cariaga can both boot the ball.