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Eyes on the prize: Konawaena prepared for battle against run-heavy Lunas in state title game

November 17, 2017 - 12:05am

KEALAKEKUA — In preparation for the program’s first ever state championship appearance, Konawaena has spent the better part of the last two weeks getting down and dirty, which isn’t hard on the Wildcats’ field that usually has plenty of mud to go around.

While the turf at Aloha Stadium will provide a lighter laundry load for Konawaena, the team will need the extra serving of grit and grind when it meets defending champion Lahainaluna in the HHSAA Division II state championship game at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

“We had to prepare at a high level. Lahainaluna is well-coached and good on both sides of the ball. But our guys know we are not just here to be here,” Konawaena head coach Brad Uemoto said. “We have come this far, we want to win this thing.”

Last season, the Lunas upended the Wildcats in the state semifinals, 28-14, in a game where the Maui Interscholastic League champs did not complete a pass (0 of 4).

There are some new faces in the Lunas’ multiple set Wing-T offense, but it has functioned relatively the same this season — a single pass attempt in the team’s semifinal victory over Iolani evidence of that.

“You can watch film and see the different things they do offensively and what their scheme is, but at the end of the day, without playing them, you don’t know what it’s like,” Uemoto said. “We returned eight defensive starters and they have had the opportunity to play against them. The memory of that game last year is seared into their minds. It’s going to be a battle.”

In its three games against teams outside of the BIIF, Konawaena has allowed a 200-yard rusher. However, in a 24-14 victory over Hilo, the Wildcats limited Hilo running back Kahale Huddleston — arguably the most explosive offensive talent in the state — to his season low in total yardage.

The Lunas had a pair of 100-yard rushers against Iolani and make no secret about what they want to do, living by the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“That’s just who we are. We run the ball,” Lahainaluna co-head coach Garret Tihada said at the HHSAA media day this week. “That’s our personality and has been for years. It’s what we know so we stick with it.”

Konawaena’s personality for the past two seasons was very much centered around an explosive passing game, outgunning opponents and scoring at will. While the Wildcats piled up the points against BIIF opponents for most of the year, the team found success in a little different way, utilizing an upstart running game — led by Chauncey Mariani-Louis — and taking advantage of short fields provided by a stingy defense.

But then the state semifinal against Waipahu happened and the floodgates opened for the Konawaena offense like days of old. The numbers were downright gaudy in the shootout, with seven total touchdowns and 480 yards of offense in a 53-50 victory.

“We wanted to be playing our best football at the right time and to have that offensive explosion in the semifinals, combined with what I’ve seen in practice, I think we are,” Uemoto said.

It was no surprise that the catalyst for the offense was quarterback Austin Ewing, who has been the centerpiece of the Konawaena attack since his sophomore year. He broke state tournament records for completions, attempts and passing yards in the contest, building on his reputation of being a nightmare to game plan against for opponents.

“Maybe we need two to three more guys on the field besides our 11. He’s really, really good,” Tihada said, referring to Ewing, the two-time BIIF Offensive Player of the Year. “It’s going to take a lot of pursuing to the ball, a lot of teamwork, staying in our lanes, and a lot of discipline.”

The Lunas defense is allowing just a shade over 14 points per game this season and forced three turnovers against the Raiders, translating into 14 points.

Turnovers are twice the headache for offenses facing Lahainaluna, as the Luna’s offense gets even more of a chance to control the clock and grind down the defense. The Wildcats learned that lesson in last year’s matchup, turning the ball over four times.

“We’re going to have to find ways to score, be efficient, not turn the ball over and manage the game,” Uemoto said. “As much as they want to keep our offense off the field, we don’t want to face that offense throughout the game as well. It’s definitely going to be something that we’re going to have to balance throughout the game and see where we’re at.”

Title game climb

After dropping a pair of preseason games, many — even the most staunch Wildcat faithful — were not sure how the season would shake out for Konawaena.

A third consecutive BIIF title? Maybe. Making history, well, it seemed unlikely.

Just for some perspective, the team had never lost back-to-back games during since Uemoto took over as head coach in 2015 and had only lost four games overall under his watch entering the season — two of those coming in the state tournament semifinals.

While it might have felt like rock-bottom and just the start of the climb, those two losses were really some of the biggest and most productive steps on the journey to a state championship berth.

“I think a lot of people doubted what we could do on the state level,” Ewing said, who has helped guide the ‘Cats to a nine-game winning streak since.

Defensive end Paka Cacoulidis agreed that it served as some nice motivation.

“Everybody doubted us after the preseason, but we bounced back,” Cacoulidis said. “Mean kine, we bounced back.”

All of the lights

This will be the biggest game in Konawaena’s long and storied history, and it comes at Aloha Stadium, which is nothing like the venues BIIF team’s are used to playing in.

The team flies out today and has a full-pad practice scheduled for the afternoon at the stadium. It will be more than just running through plays, however.

“I want them to pace the sidelines. I want to show them every part of that stadium and have them see that it’s just a football field,” Uemoto said. “We can measure the lines. They are all the same as they are at home.”

For Ewing, like many of his teammates, it will be the first time stepping onto the stadium’s turf.

“I’ve been there, but never stepped on the field,” Ewing said. “I’m glad we have a practice there. It will be a chance to get the jitters out. But we have to remind ourselves that it’s just another game.”

That’s what Uemoto has been stressing to his team. Despite the significance of the occasion, this moment can’t get too big and the Wildcats can’t look too far ahead. He wants them to savor it — every second.

“I keep telling them to enjoy the ride. Enjoy the moment. Don’t look too far ahead or dwell on what we have or could have done,” Uemoto said. “This is about the experience and something they can look back on later in their lives.”

“People have just been telling us to play hard and have fun,” Ewing added. “Win or lose, they will be there for us when it’s over.”

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