By J.R. DE GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
KAILUA -KONA — Kealakehe rode into Big Island Interscholastic Federation playoffs on a tidal wave of expectations as the league’s lone unbeaten team and the defending champions.
The Waveriders did not disappoint in the Division I semifinals on Wednesday night at Waverider Stadium, knocking off rival Konawaena 1-0 and advancing to the BIIF title game.
“It was the classic crosstown rivalry game,” Kealakehe head coach Urs Leuenberger said. “Konawaena is a great team who came out and played us physical. It took our best effort all season long to win this one, against an opponent I can easily say gave us our best test so far.”
The teams met in the final game of the regular season with Kealakehe (13-0-1) edging Konawaena 2-0 to secure an undefeated regular season and the No. 1 seed in Division I.
It didn’t take long for the Waveriders to strike in the rematch. Ari Mench finished on a messy scene in front of the Konawaena net to make it 1-0 less than five minutes in.
Kealakehe continued to pick up chances after the goal, including an individual effort by Nicholas Joersz that nearly made it a two-goal hole for the Wildcats.
After the initial surge of Waverider chances, the Wildcats (7-5-2) picked up the pace and physicality.
Senior forward John Replogle led the charge for the Wildcats, driving to the net and generating multiple chances against. The Waveriders All-BIIF goalkeeper Greyson Moore was up to the task though, propelling his body in front of balls with reckless abandon time and time again.
“Greyson played great for us in net,” Leuenberger said of his sophomore goalkeeper. “He rose to the occasion, and stopped anything and everything that came his way.”
The climax of the physicality came after Kealakehe Daniel Caudell, jumped for a contested ball, knocking Bailey Hanato to the turf.
Just seconds after the incident, Kealakehe captain Keoni Yates was given a yellow card for a physical play, resulting in a free kick for the Wildcats.
Shortly thereafter, Scott Henderson was given a yellow card at the other end of the field after a hard collision with the Konawaena goalkeeper. The calls drew a loud groan of displeasure from the home crowd.
Since a second yellow card results in an ejection, the two Kealakehe stars had to play smart, while the intensity of the winner-take-all rivalry only continued to escalate.
“This is the semifinals, so you just have to keep going,” Leuenberger said. “They knew if you lose it’s over, so you can’t play with any reservations.”
Kealakehe entered the break with a 1-0 lead, but Konawaena had gained a wealth of momentum late and kept it rolling into the second half.
In the early-going, Chris Higuchi stole the ball away from a Kealakehe defender by the corner flag and drove down the goal line. Higuchi’s shot was rejected by a diving Moore, but the rebound ended up on the foot of Replogle. Replogle scrambled in the box like a quarterback under pressure, looking for an open lane to get off a shot. When he finally let one go, it hit the post and out of bounds.
Konawaena continued to pressure late, but the sturdy Kealakehe defense — cemented by Moore as a backstop — stymied the Wildcats attempt at making it to the BIIF title game in its first year at the Division I level. Konawaena won the Division II title last season.
Leuenberger, estatic with his team’s efforts, thinks the hardest test of the season came at the best possible time.
“It is the perfect game heading into the finals,” Leuenberger said. “Konawaena really tested us and it took our best effort. Now we want to carry that into the championship.”
The win sets up a game with Hilo, another familiar foe for Kealakehe. The matchup is a rematch of last year’s Division I championship, which Kealakehe won handily. Kealakehe will be pursing its seventh title when the teams kick off at Kamehameha at Saturday at 7 p.m.
“We beat them in the finals last year 6-2, but I don’t expect a similar score. Hilo has played us tough time we see them,” Leuenberger said. “We went to Kamehamaeha for a practice last week to try to get use to the turf and how the ball plays. We hope it pays dividends.”