KEALAKEKUA — Ever since they almost topped five-time defending Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state football champion Iolani way back on Aug. 11, the Konawaena Wildcats had dreams of becoming state champions.
However, the Nanakuli Golden Hawks ended those dreams Saturday at Julian Yates Field, erasing a 16-point deficit and capping a furious comeback with a safety to stun Konawaena 25-23 in the first round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Football Championships.
With 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, the Golden Hawks’ Royce Ochimas applied pressure on Wildcats quarterback Lii Karratti, who retreated into the end zone and threw the football into the turf 10 yards downfield on a 3rd-and-15 play from the Konawaena 17-yard line.
Officials called intentional grounding, which results in a safety when it occurs in the end zone.
“(At halftime), the coaches told us, ‘This is your time. Who wants it more? We have another half, and we can do this,’” Ochimas said.
The victory game Nanakuli a spot in next Saturday’s semifinals at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium, where the Golden Hawks (7-4) will face Maui Interscholastic League power Lahainaluna (8-1) at 4 p.m.
Karratti, who finished 9-of-24 for 289 yards with a touchdown and an interception, said he wasn’t aware of the intentional grounding rule regarding passes released in the end zone.
“I didn’t know it was possible to be a safety,’’ Karratti said. “I just thought it’d be intentional grounding.”
The two-time defending Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II champion Wildcats, who ended their season 9-5, attempted a miracle play after Nanakuli turned the ball over on downs on the Golden Hawks’ possession after the safety.
With 2 seconds remaining and Konawaena at its own 31, Karratti completed a short pass to Dishon Cho, and the ball exchanged hands a handful of times before Nanakuli’s Chazz Troutman dragged down the Wildcats’ Keenan Gaspar at the Golden Hawks’ 43.
“It was a great ride,’’ said Konawaena senior linebacker Mikey Rabara, who played with a sprained knee. “I couldn’t ask for a better team.
“We played together in every single game, and I love everyone on the team.’’
While Rabara played through an injury, the Wildcats lost dynamic running back John Kamoku and junior linebacker Evyn Yamaguchi to shoulder injuries in the first half. Regardless, Konawaena held a 23-7 lead behind Karratti, who attacked the Golden Hawks with deep throws down the sidelines, completing five passes of 30 yards or more.
But Nanakuli found its running game in the second half, with senior Khade Paris running for 101 of his 117 yards in the second half. He knifed through the middle of Konawaena’s defense for a 23-yard touchdown run with 7:46 left in the third quarter, and Lansen Liki’s 2-point conversion pass from Troutman got the Golden Hawks within 23-15.
While Nanakuli continued to run the ball at will thereafter, Konawaena defensive back Ryan Torres-Torioka single-handedly fended Nanakuli off for an entire quarter, intercepting one Troutman pass at the Konawaena 17 and picking off another at the Wildcats’ 7.
But Nanakuli tied the contest on its first drive of the fourth quarter, marching 63 yards in seven plays. Troutman ran the ball in from 11 yards out after faking a pitch, scampering around the right side of the line with 7:26 left.
Troutman then connected with Brandon Felisi on a 2-point conversion pass to tie the game and set up Nanakuli’s unexpected safety.
While Nanakuli’s ground game churned out yards, Karratti completed just 2 of 11 passes in the second half.
“They did a pretty good job covering our receivers, and the blitz worked,’’ Karratti said.
In the first half, Karratti displayed pinpoint accuracy. His receivers often drew double-coverage, but it didn’t matter to senior Domonic Morris, who got behind Nanakuli’s Jaryn Paris and Tryson Vincent inside the front right pylon for a 23-yard touchdown reception that put Wildcats ahead at 13-7 with 8 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first half.
Morris, who finished with three receptions for 115 yards, also caught a 62-yard pass that led to John Replogle’s 32-yard field goal as time expired in the second half.
Earlier in the game, Gaspar hauled in a 43-yard pass from Karratti to set up the junior quarterback’s 2-yard touchdown run, and Cho caught a 43-yard pass that led to Bubba-Ellis-Noa’s 1-yard scoring run.
Gaspar caught four passes for 121 yards, and Cho had two receptions for 53 yards.
After the game, Karratti said the coaching staff told the Wildcats “we played really good, and we’re still champs.’’
“It was awesome,’’ Karratti said of the season. “This was the funnest season I had playing football.’’
Nanakuli 0 7 8 10 — 25
Konawaena 6 17 0 0 — 23
Kona — Lii Karratti 2 run (run failed), 5:50
Nana — Chazz Troutman 18 run (Joseph Shelton kick), 10:20
Kona — Domonic Morris 23 pass from Karratti (John Replogle kick), 8:12
Kona — Bubba Ellis-Noa 1 run (Replogle kick), 1:25
Kona — FG Replogle 32, 0:00
Nana — Khade Paris 23 run (Lansen Liki pass from Troutman), 7:46
Nana — Troutman 11 run (Brandon Felisi pass from Troutman), 7:26
Nana — Safety, intentional grounding in the end zone, 2:30
Follow Joe Ferraro on Twitter (@jf_hawaiisports)