With its passing game still a work-in-progress, Hilo’s defense has been the team’s strength, often shouldering a huge load — stopping the opposition, winning the turnover battle, and even taking the football to the end zone.
A classic example was Hilo’s defense carrying a lot of weight in a 21-10 victory over Kealakehe in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship Saturday at Wong Stadium, delivering the Vikings their first league title since 2003.
No. 3 seed Hilo (10-1, 9-0 BIIF ) plays Campbell (8-3) at 7 p.m. today in the first round of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament at Keaau High.
It’s the third appearance for the Vikings, who lost to Farrington 27-0 in 2003 at Keaau High and to Kaimuki 20-0 in 2000 at Wong Stadium.
It’s the first time the BIIF has been handed the No. 3 seed. The Vikings could have played Kahuku, the two-time defending state champion. But the Sabers stunned the Red Raiders 28-7 in the Oahu Interscholastic Association Red third-place game.
Two things stand out from that Campbell win: senior quarterback Isaac Hurd was 21 of 30 for 169 yards, throwing for a score and rushing for three touchdowns, and the Sabers limited Kahuku’s rushing attack to 67 yards on 29 carries.
At least the Vikings got good preparation against Kealakehe quarterback Keoni Yates, another two-way threat. Hilo held him to 52 yards on 21 carries, and 9 of 14 passing for 104 yards with two picks.
Hilo junior linebacker Ofa Fahiua had both interceptions, returning one for a 35-yard touchdown. The veteran defense, with nine senior starters, forced six turnovers, and the offense scored twice off those Kealakehe giveaways.
According to stats from Josh Pacheco, of ESPN Radio, senior defensive linemen Isi Holani (40.5 tackles, 13.5 sacks), Jon Salzman (42, 10.5) and Michael Williams (39, 10) are Hilo’s biggest playmakers.
Against the Waveriders, the Vikings couldn’t find offensive balance. The ground game had 34 attempts for 83 yards, and quarterbacks Donavan Kelley and Sione Atuekaho went a combined 6 of 18 for 136 yard with two interceptions. But both threw scoring strikes off turnovers.
For the year, including the preseason, Pacheco charted Hilo junior running back Tristin Spikes with 1,227 yards on 158 carries, a 7.8-yard-per-attempt average, and Kelley for 650 yards on 100 carries. The two junior speedsters have each scored eight touchdowns.
Atuekaho is 32 of 75 for 558 yards with eight TDs and six picks while Kelley is 13 of 55 for 169 yards with three scoring strikes and seven interceptions, according to Pacheco’s stats on espnhawaii.com.
Hilo coach Dave Baldwin, thanks to OC16 broadcasts, has watched Campbell play three times and he’s been impressed by Hurd, who spread the ball against Kahuku to seven receivers, including the coach’s son Amosa Amosa Jr., who had five receptions for 58 yards.
The Sabers also rushed for 103 yards on 32 carries, displaying great balance with Hurd’s 30 passing attempts. That type of diversity will keep the Vikings on their toes, especially with a difference-making quarterback. Hurd ran for 40 yards on 14 carries.
“That quarterback is the real deal,” Baldwin said. “He could definitely play college ball. … And with (Campbell coach Amosa) Amosa’s play-calling, that will give us fits.”
The BIIF is 0-14 in the Division I state tourney. All the other leagues — OIA, Interscholastic League of Honolulu, Maui Interscholastic League and Kauai Interscholastic Federation — have won opening-round games.
Last year, then three-time defending BIIF champion and No. 4 seed Kealakehe fell to Farrington 34-25 at Waverider Stadium, despite a productive effort from Lennox Jones, who rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
Fahiua, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound strong-side linebacker, is a first-year starter. As a freshman, he played on Keaau’s junior varsity as a tight end. He then changed schools, and sat out his sophomore year at Hilo under the league’s transfer rules.
He was interested in Hilo’s Jr. ROTC program, the main reason for the move, Fahiua said. He was able to practice, and switched over to defense, where he shined on the practice field.
In the BIIF championship, Fahiua had the best game of his life with a half-dozen tackles, including a sack, two picks, and one fumble strip-and-recovery — a highlight performance that didn’t surprise Baldwin.
“It’s no accident he was in the right spot,” Baldwin said. “He’s one of our ‘CKs.’ That’s character kids. He’s a ‘Yes, coach. No, coach,’ guy. He’s a diligent worker. He’s an intelligent kid and when you pay attention to details that’s why you end up in the right spot at the right time.
“When we got him last year, he was raw but he was always physically gifted. That one year studying, practicing and taking all those reps made it a smooth transition for him into the starting lineup.”
Even as the No. 3 seed, the Vikings are considered the underdog, especially with the BIIF’s 0-14 record hanging over the league’s head.
It’s the first time in the Division I state tourney for the Sabers, who have added ammunition — to prove their win over Kahuku was no fluke. Also, they probably don’t want to be the BIIF’s first victim, something Amosa will likely use as bulletin-board motivational material.
Sometimes underdogs turn into giant killers, and players who weren’t on the field a year ago step up and shine. That was the case with Fahiua, who will back at his old home, Keaau High’s football stadium.
“I had the best game of my career so far,” said Fahiua, standing under rain drops last Saturday night after Hilo won the BIIF title. “I’m going to try my best against Campbell.”
Notes: Hilo athletic director Sondra Lundvick said HHSAA ticket prices are $7 general admission, $5 students (grades K-12), and $5 for senior citizens (ages 62 and older).
KHLO 850 AM will broadcast the game live.