Pilares gets chance in state spotlight
By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Wes Nakama
Tonight's 15th Annual HUB Goodwill Senior Bowl is not just one last hurrah for the 100 high school all-star football players in their final prep game.
It also is a chance for fans to give a first hurrah to players they somehow never got to watch during the season.
And Damien running back Kealoha Pilares definitely is one of those players whom everybody should see play at least once.
Pilares, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound running back, finished the season as the state's leading rusher (1,741 yards) and scorer (146 points). He had over 400 yards more than the next leading rusher and 20 points more than the next leading scorer despite his team not making the playoffs (postseason statistics count).
Pilares will play his final high school game tonight for the West squad; kickoff is set for 7:30 at Aloha Stadium, and the game will be televised live on OC-16.
None of Damien's 10 games were televised this season, and the Monarchs never played in the feature (late) contest of Aloha Stadium doubleheaders, so there are many who never saw Pilares in action.
What they missed is a smooth, fluid back who gobbles up yards with surprising efficiency. He can make tacklers miss with minimal movement and slips through slight openings quickly thanks to wide-angle vision.
But Pilares not only is an outstanding runner. He also catches passes out of the backfield and is a dangerous return man on kicks and punts.
"He's done everything you could ask," Damien co-head coach Dean Nakagawa said.
In an epic game against Iolani on Nov. 4, Pilares probably did more than any Hawai'i high school running back was ever asked to do. He carried the ball a staggering 50 times, for 300 yards and four touchdowns and also returned a kickoff 76 yards for another touchdown.
But even all that wasn't enough as the Monarchs lost, 57-49, ending their season.
"I was sick (about the loss), because I felt some of it was my fault," said Pilares, who lost a fumble in the fourth quarter.
Pilares could hardly be faulted for that defeat, nor Damien's other five losses. In a 20-12 loss to Saint Louis the week before, he rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries and also had a 68-yard kickoff return.
Two weeks before that game, Pilares rushed for 94 tough yards and one touchdown on 31 carries in a 21-14 loss to Kamehameha.
The Division II Monarchs led in the fourth quarter of both those games — against Division I opponents — before falling.
"Games just got away from us," Pilares said.
But those defeats also proved that he is the real deal and can pile up big numbers against top competition.
Punahou, Saint Louis, Kamehameha and Iolani finished the season ranked Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, in The Advertiser's statewide Top 10 poll of coaches and media. In five games against those teams, Pilares rushed for a total of 762 yards (152.4 ypg) and eight touchdowns.
"No doubt, he proved that the best players in Division II can play with the best in the state," Nakagawa said.
The colleges apparently agree. Pilares has received a scholarship offer from Boise State and is receiving strong interest from Hawai'i and Air Force. He was scheduled to visit San Diego State next week, but Aztecs head coach Tom Craft was fired on Monday, so that trip is in limbo.
Pilares, who wants to be a pilot, said he will visit Air Force on Jan. 5.
"It's still pretty even," Pilares said of his college preferences. "It's a hard choice."
Pilares also is the reigning state triple jump champion with a leap of 44 feet, 11 1/2 inches and took fifth in the long jump (21-01.25)
Whatever school lands him won't just be getting a great athlete.
Pilares carries a 3.9 grade point average with a course load that includes advanced placement physics, serves as senior class president and is editor of Damien's yearbook.
The college that signs him also will get a humble young man.
When asked about the frustration of rushing for 300 yards and scoring five touchdowns only to lose 57-49, Pilares said, "I don't blame everybody else. One person can't win the game."
As for finally getting a chance tonight to showcase his talents under the bright lights and on statewide TV, Pilares was simply grateful for the opportunity.
"I'm just happy to play in this game," he said. "I get to play with all these good guys. Only 100 (players) get picked, and more wanted to come."
But probably none was more deserving.
Reach Wes Nakama at firstname.lastname@example.org.