As a freshman way back in 2009, Justen Kawamoto started on a Honokaa football team that surprised many by winning the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship.
Kawamoto assumed more of a leadership role as a sophomore, realizing that it was “my turn.”
Last season, the Dragons endured their ups and downs, including early losses to Hawaii Prep and Konawaena by a combined 122-7, before improving en route to a middle-of-the pack finish in Division II.
The biggest lesson Kawamoto learned along the way?
“No fear,” he said. “I’ve learned what fear does. It changes the whole game.
“Fear is a big factor in football.”
With Kawamoto carrying the ball behind an experienced offensive line, the Dragons have a chance to strike a fair amount of trepidation into their opponents during the second season of the Bobby Embernate regime.
The coach sees an ever-improving team that still has a few deficiencies to fix. The men up front on offense are Honokaa’s strength. The unit returns four senior starters: Elrey Tupe (6-foot, 260 pounds), Triton Reich (6-2, 250), Kainoa Lyman (6-1, 205) and Koali Kaha (5-9, 195).
Their key task is to open holes for a deep corps of running backs as Honokaa breaks in a new quarterback and its passing game tries to find its footing.
Now a senior, Kawamoto (6-0, 205), who was all-BIIF honorable mention last year, will continue to be a workhorse and has the strength to run inside and the speed to elude would-be tacklers on the outside.
“He’s a big guy and a load to tackle,” Embernate said. “We have a couple of guys to help him.”
Senior Caleb Pacheco and sophomore Sione Epenesa also will get the ball in an offense that will line up in the I-formation and power-I and occasionally try to spread the field.
With the offense ahead of the defense heading into the regular season, the goal is to be balanced between run and pass, but Honokaa isn’t there yet.
“Ideally we’d like to be 50-50,” Embernate said. “But right now we’re more 75-25 run.”
Junior Makana Ebanez, a transfer from Kealakahe, takes over at quarterback and is still trying to lock down his timing with senior wide receivers Damien Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz and Ty Kauai.
Kaluhimoku-Dela Cruz is 5-3, but he could play a big role for the Dragons both by helping them move the chains and in bolstering an inexperienced secondary.
“I feel like I’m getting open, but I don’t mind blocking. Whatever makes my team better,” he said. “On defense, we just need to get everybody to the ball.”
The defense returns four starters and is led by Kawamoto and fellow co-captain Wayne Vaoga at linebacker. Vaogo, a junior, will share time with Epenesa at fullback.
Lyman anchors the defensive line, and Embernate said the Dragons will scheme to create pressure. Until the secondary gains seasoning, they’ll play zone “so they know where they’re going.”
Embernate missed time last year with an illness, and his absence showed up on the field. However, he’s hopeful that Honokaa grew up a little during its struggles.
“We just have to be mentally tougher and rub dirt,” he said. “Rub dirt on your wounds.”
Kawamoto is talking with junior college coaches about playing at the next level, and then he’d like to transfer to a four-year university. As much physical work as he’s going to put in this year, he figures the season will be an even bigger mental challenge as a team leader.
In 2012, it’s still his turn.
“Ever since I started, the young guys have looked up to the older players. We have a young team, and there are mistakes here and there, but they’re trying their hardest,” he said. “It’s about heart and discipline, and we have that.
“What it is really is this team has been together since Pop Warner, so we’re really tight. More brothers than a football team.”