Ten games into the 2017 season, the Konawaena Wildcats are in the driver’s seat without being in a bus. Winning the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title (and finishing first in the overall standings), after a multitude of key injuries makes this one of the most unlikely of Wildcat football performances in a long history that includes 12 consecutive league titles (1980-91) a generation ago.
By reaching the state tourney, Konawaena (8-2) gets home field for tonight’s matchup with unbeaten Waipahu (10-0) in the opening (semifinal) round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA D-II Football State Championships. Coach Brad Uemoto chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Thursday about injuries, clutch play and the pleasantries of five-hour round trips to games.
HPW: I’ve seen Konawaena teams that were really good at the hurry-up. But I haven’t see you guys and I know there are some young players on the offense.
Uemoto: We’ve been tempoing a lot because defensively we’re playing better. We’ve been changing tempos a bit depending on how the game is going.
HPW: Your offense struggled early, then got key people back and really developed. But the defense has been a constant. Who are the guys who have been consistent?
Uemoto: That’s (defensive end) Paka Cacoulidis and (linebacker) Seau Amor. And a sophomore, (DE) Alex Muti. Alex and Paka have been our cornerstones on the D-line, strong and athletic. Paka’s more of our run stopper.
HPW: The litany of injuries has been sad for Wildcat fans. Who was the guy who got hurt against St. Francis (in preseason)?
Uemoto: Dominic Delacruz. He was chasing somebody out of bounds and a helmet to the back cleaned him out. It’s a fractured vertebrae in the lower back. He went down and couldn’t feel anything. It was like a fight-or-flight situation. He popped up, got to our sideline and just collapsed. He’s been walking, but he’s waiting for the fracture to heal.
HPW: He was a key guy on defense?
Uemoto: He was fighting for time as a LB and RB. He was our starting RB, too. We lost our top DB in the first Kamehameha-Hawaii game to a torn ACL. Dustin Cho is the one who single-handedly stopped (Hilo RB Kahale) Huddleston, had more than 10 tackles that night.
HPW: The Hilo win was huge. I think your defense was the first one this year to limit Kahale below 100 yards. So Dustin was basically spying on Kahale.
Uemoto: He still had assignments in the secondary, but he was definitely the guy coming up and making that hit every time. Last season, he was our starting free safety. Then in that St. Francis game, he had two picks and found out after that game he had a broken wrist. He had surgery and had screws put in. He was done for the year. Then he tore his ACL against KS-Hawaii.
HPW: Let’s talk about offense. Your receiver crew is young, but producing. Austin Ewing has been patient, a leader, and now the passing game is clicking and Kaanoi Rivera-Kelekolio) is your top receiver.
Uemoto: Kaanoi broke his leg in practice, running routes and somebody stepped on his ankle. the week after we beat Kamehameha-Hawaii. We played the championship without all these guys.
HPW: The injury toll, totally insane. Let’s go back to the regular-season win at KS-Hawaii, which gave Konawaena home field in the D-II playoffs. It was the closest game of the BIIF season for you, 13-12. That’s long, long trip.
Uemoto: Kamehameha is such a hard place to play. The bus can’t take the Saddle (road), so we have to go south.
HPW: That’s a lot of winding, dipping, rising roads.
Uemoto: Oh yea, five or six kids always get sick.
HPW: Does the team still use Greyhound buses for the longer drives?
Uemoto: When we go to Kamehameha, we usually get the tour bus. The majority of the year we get the orange Twinkie.
HPW: I remember in the 1990s the bus rentals getting up to $300.
Uemoto: The tour bus is over $800. The regular twinkie is over $600.
HPW: But the injuries, that’s a major challenge.
Uemoto: It’s been happening with key players, and they’re big injuries. We lost a slotback, Bronson Leslie, in the fourth week. That was a non contact injury to his vertebrae.
HPW: Waipahu has a lot of seasoned players. They might be traveling for the first time this year, but they’ve been through a lot over the past few years. And their offense is rolling.
Uemoto: Waipahu’s offense really reminds me of our offense two years ago when we lost to Radford in the semis. That year, I felt we had five receivers with starting potential, and that’s what they are. They kind of have a five-man rotation.
HPW: What’s it been like for Austin, transitioning from an older group of teammates, especially his receivers, to a position where he’s probably guiding his younger teammates. A little bit like Tua (Tagovailoa) did during his prep career at Saint Louis.
Uemoto: Against St. Francis, we had 28 drops that night, so that was Austin’s introduction. Five dropped touchdowns. Wide open in the end zone. It was brutal. We led in the first half and we were about to go up two scores and we turned the ball over, and then their RB (Jonan Aina-Chaves) broke a 90-yard TD run. We missed seven tackles and that turned the game around.
HPW: Is there any kind of advantage to be on the road, having less pressure than being at home?
Uemoto: There’s two ways to look at it. If we travel we have an advantage because we have the kids all together and we can meet, structure things, and there’s more camaraderie. We enjoyed traveling to Radford the other year. But at home, we have that advantage. Waipahu played one turf game at Nanakuli. The elements, the surroundings, the holes in the ground, the sand on the field, it’s going to be a little bit of a shock for them.
HPW: Hilo had Kahale Huddleston. Waipahu has Alfred Failauga.
Uemoto: For us as a BIIF defense, whenever you come into the year, regardless of whatever talent you have, you have to stop the run. Defensively, we’re built to stop the run. In terms of personnel, we’re always built athletically to stop the pass. That’s kind of what we have to bank on. I don’t think we can try to stop both. We have to take away one or the other, and just try to make plays, get turnovers and hope they make mistakes.
HPW: Is there anyone who might step up in this game, especially with all the players who have moved into key spots after the injuries?
Uemoto: I think Austin, he’s been so quiet all year. Statistically, he’s been quiet. I can see in these past three days of practice, he’s zoned in. He was sick last week and missed a couple of days of practice. Since he came back he’s been energized and fresh. He’s also our best defensive back. We’ve got nothing left to save him for.