Hilo and Keaau face off with championship berth on the line


It’s always nice to have luck on your side, but Hilo middle linebacker Sione Holika knows that alignment, assignment and execution are far more important for success on the football field.

It’s a new Big Island Interscholastic Federation season with the single-elimination semifinals. It’s win and advance, or lose and go home to plan for next year.

The postseason is the time when underdogs pull upsets or favorites continue rolling their snowball. It’s a two-win mission for a BIIF championship and berth in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.

In the BIIF Division I semifinals, No. 1 seed Hilo (8-1 overall, 7-0 BIIF) hosts No. 4 Keaau (1-6, 1-6) at 7:30 p.m. today at Wong Stadium. In the other semifinal, No. 2 Kealakehe (3-5, 3-4) will host No. 3 Waiakea (2-7, 2-5) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Waverider Stadium.

In the first meeting, Sept. 7, the Vikings thumped the Cougars 35-7, controlling the clock with Tristin Spikes rushing for 164 yards on 11 carries, and defensive terror Isi Holani disrupting Keaau’s offensive rhythm.

The Cougars also couldn’t figure out a way to stop two-way threat Donavan Kelley. The Hilo junior caught a 9-yard touchdown pass, rushed for a 59-yard score and gained 85 yards on six carries.

Holika missed that game, along with five others, with a dislocated shoulder. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound senior had his best performance in the four games he’s been back, in Hilo’s 45-20 win over Waiakea Saturday in a crosstown rivalry game.

He scored on a 25-yard fumble return and a 57-yard pick-six. It’s the first time Holika accomplished that rare double TD feat.

“It was luck,” said Holika, who last year became the first Hawaii recipient to receive a grant from ncsasports.org to help him land a scholarship. The grant looked for leadership in four areas: community service, academics, athletics and essay.

Along with luck, Holika was also in the right place at the right time, not once but twice. Then he pointed out his expectations and job duties as the middle linebacker who makes the play calls.

“We have a lot to improve on. It’s not the best game we played (against Keaau),” he said. “My job is to get everybody aligned right, make sure they know their assignments and have them execute. “Anything can happen against Keaau. Those guys have improved.”

One huge improvement has been a power-based rushing attack sparked by Kiliona Pomroy, who ran for 60 yards on 11 attempts in Keaau’s 16-0 loss to Kamehameha last Friday. In the previous week, the 5-10, 238-pound junior made his first start on offense, and bulldozed for 80 yards on 11 attempts against Honokaa.

Pomroy, who began the season at linebacker, so far hasn’t shown the ability to bounce to the outside and outrun the defense. But that doesn’t mean he can’t break off a long run. On his second carry, Pomroy gashed the Warriors for 31 yards.

Another improvement has been Keaau’s offensive line play. Zeph Pavao, a BIIF judo champion and wrestling runner-up, is playing on both sides of the ball, bringing much-needed size and his technical skills from his two other sports, mainly mobility, strength and hand-to-hand grappling.

The Cougars also lined up in an I-formation and quarterback George Lucas-Tadeo operated from under center, offering a different look in a league full of spread offenses with the signal-caller 5 yards back.

With the run setting up play-action, Lucas-Tadeo had a few completions off that wrinkle. Against Kamehameha, he was only 13 of 35 for 158 yards with three second-half picks. But he did have several long strikes to Jared Makaweo-Quihano, 28 and 15 yards; Cohlby Espaniola, 22 yards; and Usti Koga, 16 yards.

“I watched them Friday night and they’ve made so many improvements,” Hilo coach Dave Baldwin said. “They possess several matchup problems. They’ve got good skill players on offense and defense. There’s no relief of pressure. They can hit the big play at any moment, any time.”

Hilo’s lopsided win over Waiakea not only provided another morsel of momentum, but also a good piece of preparation when the Warriors kept pounding away in the second half with an off-set I formation.

Devin Preston was a part-time quarterback during an 11-play drive that started from Hilo’s 32 in the third quarter and was capped by Bryce Felipe’s 11-yard touchdown pass to George Hanohano with 11:48 remaining in the game.

The 68-yard march started with nine running plays. After Waiakea scored, Hilo still led 31-14. But for five long minutes, the Warriors looked like an unstoppable No. 1 seed, and the Vikings turned into a team that couldn’t stop the run.

Preston only rushed twice during that drive for 15 yards. But the threat of him touching the ball had the Vikings a step slow making the right read, and tackling Shane Picanco, who busted loose for 23 yards on five carries during that span; he finished with 30 yards on 10 attempts.

In the first half, Preston had only 22 yards on four carries. He blistered Hilo for 82 yards and a 19-yard touchdown in the second half. He finished with 104 yards on 15 attempts and pushed his season total to 1,049 yards.

Preston broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier, despite running with a bull’s-eye on his back against Hilo’s defense. The senior running back is the only one in the league to gain more than 100 yards on the Vikings.

The Vikings don’t have to face Preston again unless the two rivals reach the BIIF championship — something that last happened in 1994, when Tim Lino coached the Warriors to the first of four straight league titles.

Meanwhile, Holika and his fellow Vikings can sharpen all the important things like alignment, assignment and execution. That starts today with the Cougars on deck. The senior middle linebacker also realizes his window is closing.

“After my injury, my point of view changed,” he said. “It made me hungrier. The team executed earlier and I had to step up my game. “Our team can improve. We’re not at our full potential right now. We have to keep working, be committed and take care of the small things.”