They have long lived under the shadow of neighboring football teams hailing from large-population schools. They generally lack size but achieve success by relying on speed and quickness. They have little to no experience at state tournaments.
Despite it all, Konawaena and Nanakuli are a victory away from competing on one of Hawaii’s grandest athletic stages.
The teams will face each other at 7 p.m. Saturday in a Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state playoff game at Konawaena, with the winner moving on to play Lahainaluna at either 4 or 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium.
The Wildcats (9-4), who earned the No. 3 seed in the state tournament after winning their second straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title last Friday, may have a slight edge in experience having been to the state tournament in 2008 and again last year.
The Golden Hawks (6-5), the Oahu Interscholastic Association White Division runners-up, will play in their first state playoff game.
However, Konawaena hasn’t won at the state level, and Wildcats coach Cliff Walters enters the contest concerned over how well his prolific passing offense will perform against a Nanakuli defense that will gladly give up short gains and fiercely guard against deep balls.
For the better part of this season, Konawaena has faced cornerbacks who crowd them at the line of scrimmage in bump-and-run coverage. Now, Walters said, the Wildcats will face defensive backs who will give receivers a little cushion, which will demand pinpoint accuracy from junior quarterback Lii Karratti on short routes.
“They back off 7 to 12 yards,’’ Walters said of Nanakuli’s defensive backs. “Now what do you do? Because we haven’t seen that, it makes us change what we do.
“It’s an adjustment that we’re trying to make that’s difficult.”
The Wildcats faced a similar defense last year in a first-round state playoff game against Lahainaluna, and the Lunas picked off Karratti seven times in the contest en route to a 23-6 win.
This season, Karratti has thrown for 300 yards or more four times, completing 100 of 178 passes for 2,650 yards with 41 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Karratti has two big-play receivers in seniors Domonic Morris (726 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns) and Kenan Gaspar (650 receiving yards, 10 TDs), but running back John Kamoku has been in the spotlight during the past two weeks.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior followed a 200-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 56-49 home win over HPA on Oct. 26 by rushing for 231 yards and two scores in Konawaena’s 32-28 victory at Kamehameha-Hawaii last Friday.
In both games, Kamoku ripped off big runs while taking snaps at quarterback — something he did last year at West Hawaii neighbor and Division I powerhouse Kealakehe in a first-round playoff game against Leilehua, spearheading a furious rally that came up short.
Despite Kamoku’s success, Walters maintains the Wildcats will pass the ball as frequently as they have much of the season.
“If you invest too much on the pass and give up the run, we’ll take it,’’ Walters said. “But we’re a passing team.
“I think they are of the philosophy of, ‘We’re going to play the pass, but we’re really going to stop the run.’”
When asked about keys to victory, Nanakuli coach Skippy Lopes put a target on Kamoku.
“I heard they got a great running back,’’ Lopes said. “If we can stop him, we have a good chance. You don’t go 9-1 and be lucky. They have something, and we have to be ready to play. If we’re not ready, it’s going to be a long night.’’
Swarming Konawaena linebackers Mikey Rabara and Evyn Yamaguchi, along with play-making defensive linemen Kawika Kealoha, Chayne Bohol and Laimana Grace face the challenge of stopping senior quarterback Chazz Troutman, who has created long nights for opponents because of his versatility.
The 5-9 junior has beaten teams with his arm (612 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and his legs (457 rushing yards, five TDs).
Walters said the Wildcats haven’t faced a quarterback as good as Troutman since facing Reece Foy and losing to Iolani 43-40 at Aloha Stadium on Aug. 11. Also, Nanakuli, which sits just east of OIA Red Division power Waianae on Oahu, does have size at wide receiver with 6-4 Lansen Liki.
“He’s a great passer with great receivers,’’ Walters said of Troutman, who also plays safety and returns kicks and punts. “The big boys don’t trouble me as much as his slots.”
One of the slot receivers also doubles as the Golden Hawks’ top tailback: 5-11 senior Brandon Felisi, who has rushed for 457 yards this season.
Besides facing Nanakuli’s main weapons, Walters said his players must not believe there is a “mystique” about Oahu teams.
In the 14-year history of the state tournament, only two Big Island teams have ever won a state playoff game, with HPA claiming first-round games in 2004 and 2009.
“It’s crazy for us to go in there and play as if we are a speed bump,’’ Walters said. “We have to convince the kids that (Nanakuli is) a football team just like you are. They have strengths and weaknesses just like we do.
“There’s no reason for them to feel that they are inferior to any team on Oahu. We have to overcome that mental hump that says these guys are superior.”
Follow Joe Ferraro on Twitter (@jf_hawaiisports).