Call it cliche. Kealakehe doesn’t care. This year, the Waveriders are taking it one game at a time.
“Last year a lot of games got away from us,” Kealakehe senior linebacker Bronson Cariaga said. “It felt like a letdown to a lot of the alumni that had kept the winning tradition going. We are working hard to get that tradition back, but we know we have to do it one game a time.”
After an uninspiring 3-4 regular season, Kealakehe was denied a third straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation championship by Hilo. The Vikings won that game 21-10, scoring all of their points off Waverider turnovers.
“It felt horrible,” senior Kealakehe defensive back Louie Garcia said. “For the last 10 years Kealakehe had almost always won the BIIF, and we were the team that lost. We were the ones on the field that blew it.”
Disappointment can be a great motivator, and the coach tasked with harnessing the Waveriders’ hunger for a title is head coach Sam Kekuaokalani. He preaches the same message as his players.
“We have to take it one game at a time, not overlooking any team we play,” Kekuaokalani said. “Our worst enemy right now is ourselves. We can do all the preparation and reps in practice, but we need to execute and bring it at game time.”
It’s Kekuaokalani’s first year at the helm without the interim tag. In 2011 he took over the coaching duties when Gary Clarke took a leave of absence, leading Kealakehe to an undefeated season, BIIF title and even garnering Coach of the Year honors. However, Kekuaokalani admits, things are different this time.
“It does feel a little different,” Kekuaokalani said. “There is definitely the weight of pressure now and trying to bring back what it was over the last decade. But we are not focused on that. I want to keep building on the foundation that is already here.
“Sam Papalii did a lot of good while he was here, even prior to the last few years. It’s important to embrace all those people who spent their time building up this program and what they did, but I also want to establish my adaptation.”
That being said, the Waveriders will look much different than they did in 2013. The offense will run primarily out of the spread with first-year player Markus Degrate under center. The defense will rely on a base 3-4 to slow down Kealakehe’s run-heavy BIIF Division I opponents.
Like any good defensive back, when asked what the strength of the team is, a confident Garcia gave a quick reply.
“Our defense,” he said. “Not trying to put the offense down at all, but the defensive side of the ball is where our strength comes from.”
Receiver Riggs Kurashige agreed.
“The offense is young. We have a lot to learn,” Kurashige said.
In 2011, when Kekuaokalani last ran the program, this year’s seniors were freshmen. That experience is paying off and making the transition a little easier.
“We knew what to expect a little more,” Garcia said. “Right now, our team is clicking and everyone buys in to what we are doing. No one is on board by themselves.”
The road to redemption got off to a rocky start, when Kealakehe lost its only preseason game to Maui 28-7. But the players agreed that experiencing the adversity early in the preseason helped build stronger bonds for the BIIF season.
“We had a lot of young players on the field but our leaders stepped up and talked with our younger guys,” Cariaga said. “This season we just want to leave it all on the field. We can’t say a lot right now — we want our play to speak for itself.”