KEAAU >> Defending Division I state champion Hilo is on a nine-game winning streak heading into a state final for the second straight year at Aloha Stadium.
That seems like a pretty good season from the outside, but Friday’s 35-24 win over Maui in the Division I semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships was a microcosm for the Vikings’ season.
Six turnovers, including four lost fumbles in the third quarter alone, gave Maui (5-6) a chance to complete the upset of the Vikings (9-1), who haven’t lost since a 40-point blowout against Campbell to open the season in Ewa Beach.
Instead, the Hilo defense came up with three takeaways of its own in the fourth quarter, providing the up-and-down outcome that seems to be a theme for a Vikings squad trying to become the first team to repeat as Division I state champions since Kahuku in 2011 and ’12.
“Tonight was way too stressful,” Hilo coach Kaeo Drummondo said. “We take the ‘W’ how we get them. Tonight was really just an example of how our season has been. We’re so happy with the progression that these kids have made but it really has been day in and day out a grind.”
The Vikings had a chance to take a 35-10 lead in the third quarter when Guyson Ogata returned a punt for a touchdown, but it was called back by a penalty.
Maui junior Mone Tongi returned a fumble 57 yards for a score and followed Kevin Cacho’s fumble recovery on a punt with a 17-yard touchdown run to cut it to 28-24.
The Sabers got another takeaway on defense, but couldn’t score, and then committed too many errors in the final quarter.
“Sadly a microcosm of our season,” interim Sabers coach James Kammerer said. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot in that first half and they were able to get up by a couple of scores. We stuck with it and were able to get it to 28-24 and overall we’re building. We’re not where we want to be yet but we’re young.”
An expected defensive struggle turned in the second quarter with both offenses scoring on big plays.
Trailing 14-3 after Ogata scored on a 2-yard TD run, Maui threw its first touchdown pass ever in the state tournament.
Junior Brex Delray, who booted a 32-yard field goal in the first quarter, threw a short pass to running back Naia Nakamoto, who took it 70 yards for a score to cut it to 14-10.
“I didn’t have the right check for them. We didn’t see that on film that fast motion to the empty and he got us,” Drummondo said. “You give the edge to (Nakamoto) and he will score on almost anybody in the state.”
Nakamoto, who set the MIL Division I record in rushing this season, was bottled up on the ground with 24 yards on 12 carries. He finished with 116 total yards from scrimmage.
Hilo junior Kyler Aguiar, who didn’t touch the ball once in the first half, had five catches for 60 yards on Hilo’s opening drive of the third quarter and scored on a 1-yard TD reception to give Hilo a 28-10 lead.
He added a 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter after a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a field goal gave Hilo the ball first-and-goal.
“Corners were playing off so (the coaching staff) was telling us to run screens and stuff,” Aguiar said.
Ogata led the Vikings with 79 yards receiving on three catches, including a 45-yard touchdown on a ball that was popped into the air before he caught it on the second attempt and ran it in for a 21-10 lead at the break.
“Half of my touchdowns are off bobbles or tips,” Ogata said. “I just stay focused and watch the ball and see where it goes and then I target it and get it.”
The Vikings will face Waipahu for the Division I state title on Saturday, Nov. 24, at Aloha Stadium. After losing their first six games in the state tournament, Hilo has won three straight, beginning with last year’s 26-7 win over Maui that propelled them to a state-title win over Damien.
“Crazy ups and downs,” said Aguiar, who had 80 yards from scrimmage in the second half. “We fought hard and finally we just finished.”