(Here’s the long version of this preview. I wrote more than we had room for in the print edition. Way more.)
He’s been described by old-time watchers at Julian Yates Field as anything from a younger version of Ray Lewis to a current version of the late Jesse Mahelona.
That’s how good 6-foot-2, 260-pound linebacker/defensive tackle Mike Andrade is, if you believe the descriptions. If you don’t, well then, it’s all just hype. Andrade wears No. 45 for the Konawaena Wildcats, who will travel to meet perennial Division II powerhouse Lahainaluna on Saturday in the opening round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Football Championships.
“He’s so valuable to me on that D-line. He runs a 4.7 40, and it’s legit,” Konawaena coach Cliff Walters said. “He’s the real deal. He should be the league’s MVP on defense this year. He was standing up (as a linebacker) for awhile, but he’s been back down the last five games. He likes being down, a physically strong kid. He’s a cowboy, a bulldogger. He’s been a Hawaii state rodeo champion two or three times. All he says to me is, ‘Coach, I just want to hit somebody.’ ”
Andrade teams with Michael Rabara (5-11, 170) and Gunner Nagata (5-10, 167) to give the Wildcats a solid linebacking crew.
If you miss Andrade on defense, he also lines up at fullback, using 4.7 speed (in the 40-yard dash) to Konawaena’s advantage. That’s right, coach Cliff Waters has a fullback in his offensive scheme. Waters, for those who may have forgotten, guided Kealakehe to the state tournament a few years back, before Gary Clark arrived (and departed). Back then, Kealakehe was aerial juggernaut in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation.
Waters eventually parted ways with Kealakehe primarily because of philosophical differences with administration. Waters was always ambitious, aiming to have his team — which dominated the BIIF — play as many games as possible against Oahu competition. He even wanted to play state powerhouses in mid-season, if permitted.
Since then, he has retired from business ventures and took the helm at Konawaena, which was 3-9 last year.
All he and his staff, which includes son Trent Walters and All-BIIF former wide receiver Brad Uemoto, have done is guide the Wildcats to an 11-1 season, including 9-1 in league play. The wins include a shocking 28-21 win at Hawaii Prep — the preseason favorite — and another over Kamehameha-Hawaii. All of it without the benefit of spring training with Walters, who was hired in May.
“It’s difficult making kids believe in themselves after a tough season,” Walters said. “One thing you do have a small country school is great family and fan support. What kids want is something to believe in, to know, ‘We have worth. We can play against all these other teams.’ They responded and they’re warriors on the football field.”
The victories over KS-Hawaii are particularly interesting; KS-Hawaii was the only team to beat Kealakehe all season, on the Kona Coast just one week Waveriders edged Kailua. Since Kealakehe and Konawaena didn’t play this season — they are in different classifications — Wildcat fans might claim to have the best team in the BIIF, period.
That may be true. But there’s little doubt that Andrade may be the best defensive player in the league.
“It’s one of our younger teams, by far,” Lunas coach Garret Tihada said. “We’re just fortunate to be here, being a young team and inexperienced. We didn’t have too many expectations for this year. We just wanted to get our young players some experienced and it worked out. It’s definitely difficult. We’ve got a bunch of freshmen, had to spent a lot of time with fundamentals. Some of them didn’t play Pop Warner, never played before.”
Konawaena’s team defense, not just Andrade, has the attention of Tihada.
“I saw a little bit of them. They’re very aggressive. They fly around the field a lot,” he said. “They run a multiple offense. They’re going to be a handful. In the past, Maui had a lot of seniors come out and their defense really flew around and Konawaena reminds me of them.”
As of Sunday’s coaches meeting, Walters had yet to see Lahainaluna on tape.
“I don’t know much. Can’t find them on the Internet. I just know they’ve got a real good history of winning and playing tough,” he said. “The problem I’m going to have is travel.”
On paper: Like many teams statewide, Lahainaluna (6-4) went through a rebuilding process with a surplus of underclassmen. While past teams had stalwart two-way stars like Lake Casco, this year’s team is still building toward the future. Injuries at quarterback derailed the Lunas, who turned to sophomore Taylor Kohler-Fonohema.
Running backs Jared Rocha, Semisi Filikitonga, B.J. Pagdilao-Bala and Tytus Lucas have shared the load in the deceptive, run-oriented attack.
Guard Feleti Taufa (6-2, 225) and tackle Osaiasi Tauulaki (6-4, 245) have been a mainstays up front. Taufa, like the other guards in this system, are required to do a lot of pulling.
The Lunas normally give D-I power Baldwin tough competition, but lost to the Bears in two games by a combined score of 81-0. Even Maui got the best of the Lunas with a 14-13 upset win, strange as that may sound when a D-I program barely beats a D-II team. Their other loss came in nonconference play, a 14-0 win by Pac-Five.
Lahainaluna’s modified wing-T offense averaged a modest 145 yards per game on the ground with a total offense per-game average of 203 yards.
Konawaena won’t be in the dark. Honokaa ran a version of the modified wing-T.
“It won’t be a total shock. A lot of deception, a lot of ball movement. You’ve got to keep your head up. If they can combine that with the pass, we’ll have a lot of problems,” Walters said.
Defense made the difference for the Lunas, who gave up just 43 points in six MIL games against everyone but Baldwin.
The Wildcats averaged 33 points per game against a mostly D-II schedule, but two nonconference wins came against D-I programs (Keaau, Hilo). Sophomore Kahoalii Karratti is a speedster at quarterback.
“He volunteered to take the job,” Walters said of the former linebacker.
Former signal-caller Domonic Morris and Kenan Gasper are key targets to the multiple-look offense.
“We’re playing teams that have more talent than we do, so we’ve got to keep them off balance, give them a new look, so we’re not as predictable,” Walters said. “(Karratti), Kenan and Domonic have stepped up, just great kids.”
Center Keanu Malina-Serion (5-9, 195) is the key cog of the offensive line.
Leading the Lunas’ defense is middle linebacker Bronson Kaina (5-7, 185), a sophomore who is one of eight starters who play both ways.
The skinny: No team has operated the wing-T as effectively as Lahainaluna over the decades. The unique, old-school offense poses big challenges for teams that don’t see it weekly, though Tihada doesn’t believe it’s a major advantage.
“Even when we get to states, they do a good job of preparing even if they have a hard time replicating it at practice,” he said of past opponents. “The caliber of teams we face is tough. I don’t care what kind of offense you run, it comes down to blocking, tackling.”
Traveling on long bus rides around the Big Island is arduous, weary stuff, more so for west-side schools like Konawaena. Taking a short flight by plane to Maui will seem like luxe comfort by comparison. Playing in a venue like War Memorial Stadium might be an eye-popping sight for the young ‘Cats, but there’s enough veteran experience to balance out any emotional ups and downs.
X factor: The WIldcats invest plenty of time in special teams.
“It’s all about field position. I want the ball at the 50-yard line,” Walters said. “We don’t have that explosive offense. I like to throw, but at a small country school, our defense is our offense.”
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser