The setting was tantalizing for Kealakehe fans.
A rematch with rival Konawaena would give Kealakehe a chance at redemption. Konawaena won handily in their first matchup, and it was homecoming night when the teams met at Kealakehe on Thursday night.
Then things got a bit off track. By the end of the long night, some players did not get home until 2 a.m. On a school night. Konawaena improved to 5-1 in BIIF Division I play (5-2 overall). Kealakehe fell to 3-3 (4-3 overall).
Why play on a Thursday?
The Big Island Interscholastic Federation has struggled to put football officials on the field for games from high school to Pop Warner for at least three decades. The long distances and relatively low population mean there is always a small pool of willing individuals. Everyone knows the rules, or thinks they do, but few are willing to train.
“With the scheduling due to the lack of referees, there is a Thursday game every week (in the BIIF),” Konawaena coach Brad Uemoto said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever played Kealakehe on a Thursday. Last year we played HPA on a Thursday.”
The drive from Konawaena to Kealakehe is 13 miles, but more than a half-hour depending on traffic. Konawaena arrived in time, and in theory, because the distance between the schools is one of the shortest on the Big Island, playing on a school night seemed practical. Then came the biggest cause of delay.
The Wildcats noticed something peculiar as they got onto the field for warmups. As the visiting team, they had their white jerseys on. But the home team, Kealakehe, also had white. It was almost impossible to play a game this way. Konawaena literally had missed a memo.
“I guess there was a miscommunication with our athletic director,” Uemoto said. “Kealakehe was going to wear white. The reasoning I got was they didn’t have enough of the blue uniforms. They had brought up some JV players and had to go to the whites. My AD agreed to it on Monday and never relayed the message to us.”
Uemoto was understanding. The week has been quite busy for the athletic department, he noted, on campus.
“So we took the field and started warming and realized that Kealakehe had whites on, and then we figured out what happened. Our AD was at the school finishing up the volleyball game. We talked and walked her through where the jerseys were. She threw them into the back of her truck and we waited by the locker room (at Kealakehe) and warmed up after that.
By the time Konawaena had switched jerseys, the game kicked off one hour behind schedule.
“It was well after 8,” Uemoto said.
It was also a tense moment on the field with Konawaena ahead 27-0 in the first quarter. Kealakehe quarterback Shayden Nahale, who had transferred to Kealakehe in the offseason when his father, Wyatt, became the new head coach, was sacked and wound up being removed from the game.
“A bunch of our guys piled up on him, and from what I understand, he threw a punch and got ejected,” Uemoto said. “I thought he just got a penalty. The drives ends and somebody tells me he got ejected and I was (like), what?”
Kealakehe inserted another former Konawaena player, Hunter Wehrsig, to finish the game at QB.
“He’s normally a wide receiver. He was always kind of a backup (QB) kid for us, but he held his own and did a decent job. Got rid of some balls, ran it a bit,” Uemoto noted.
By halftime, Konawaena led 34-7 and it was 10 p.m. There was no consideration to call the game, not on homecoming night.
“The first quarter we got off to a lead. Elijah Kahele had a nice run and we scored right before the half. It was also their homecoming so there was a huge crowd,” Uemoto said.
The second half proceeded normally. Then the stadium lights went out with 10 minutes left. It was 10:45 p.m.
“I think the lights were on a timer. It’s 40-7. We’d just punched one in. People in the crowd started turning their phone lights on. It was a very trippy game, so we got our kids on the sideline,” Uemoto said.
The teams could wait, but it would be a typical 15-20 minutes before the lights would be back on 100 percent.
“It was Wyatt’s call. He talked to his administration. While we were discussing it, the lights were flickering back on,” Uemoto said. “It was going to take time, and it was almost 11 o’clock, we just put it all together.”
The game was done, and a trophy presentation followed. Kealakehe-Konawaena is also known as the Shawn Akana Classic.
“It’s named after one of the Kealakehe coaches. He passed away from cancer,” Uemoto said. “They awarded a trophy and the lights were coming back on. Both teams sang their alma maters.”
By the time the visiting Wildcats showered and got back into the bus, it was past 11:30 p.m.
To the outer reaches
Konawaena was the lone public high school on the entire Kona Coast for decades. Bonded to tradition, some families still send their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren there rather than a closer option. Konawaena has one player from Pu‘unanhulu, a scenic site community on the slope of Hualalai Summit that is closer to Kealakehe than it is to Konawaena. Pu‘uanahulu has a small, neat church and is dotted by homestead houses, horse and cattle ranches, and Puu Lani Ranch Estates near Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a Cinder Cone State Park.
The player went directly home from Kealakehe rather than go all the way south to Konawaena, only to backtrack north. His distance home from Kealakehe was only 19 miles.
But there are three Wildcats who live in Ocean View, a town that has developed over the years. Most residents still rely on catchment systems for water. After returning to the Konawaena campus by roughly midnight, they still had another 36 miles of winding roads to cover. Some or all of the three may have stayed overnight in Kealakekua.
Another player is from Miloli‘i, one of the oldest fishing villages in Hawaii. It’s not as far as Ocean View, but the drive downhill from the main highway to the village is a trek like few other places. The drive from Konaweena to Miloli‘i is 27 miles in all.
The longest ride home was for a player who lives in Pahala, which is so far down South, it is on the other side of the Ka‘u Forest Reserve. The local high school, Ka‘u, just moved up from eight-man football to BIIF Division II.
“He’s been at Konawaena since before high school,” Uemoto added.
His ride home from Kealakehe was a 73-mile journey, if he didn’t stay overnight near campus.
“Some of them will get home around 2 a.m. Then they have to turn around and wake up for school.”
Uemoto will hit the brakes today.
“I debated after the game about Friday’s practice. No practice, but we might have practice Saturday morning,” he said.
Human error. Long rides. Lack of referees. If the lights had not gone out, the game would have kept going until 11 p.m. or later. The BIIF has always endured an most unusual set of challenges, including bus rentals that can run well over $500. But that’s another story.