Wai'anae faces tough road
By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Wes Nakama
From one Leeward Coast to another, the Wai'anae High School football team makes its return to the First Hawaiian Bank State Tournament tomorrow after a five-year wait.
And it will be quite a journey.
The Seariders left Wai'anae in the pre-dawn hours today for Honolulu International Airport to catch a 7 a.m. flight. After arriving in Hilo about 50 minutes later, they planned to hop on a bus for the nearly three-hour ride to Kailua, Kona.
The team will then eat, probably nap, have a short practice and then rest up for tomorrow's 7:30 p.m. game against host Kealakehe.
"The traveling can be a headache, but I think it still should be a good experience for our guys," Wai'anae coach Danny Matsumoto said. "Most of our players have never been off the island before."
Tomorrow night in Kona, the Seariders (8-3) can expect a familiar atmosphere — dry, warm weather, a stadium packed with enthusiastic fans and good ol' smash-mouth, hard-hitting football. Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion Kealakehe (9-2) may not have the long history or gridiron tradition that Wai'anae carries, but it's off to a great start.
"They look like they're real physical and they move the ball well on the ground," Matsumoto said. "They have a lot of talented players, and that concerns us."
The talent starts with junior running back Gabe Tuata, who has rushed for 879 yards on 90 carries (9.8 ypc) and leads the team with 17 catches for 393 yards. He also returns punts and kicks and has 1,624 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns.
Senior running back Shaun Santiago has added 835 yards rushing and has 1,159 all-purpose yards and seven TDs. Yet another running back, junior Max Papali'i, has 439 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
As a team, the Waveriders average 257 yards per game on the ground.
"Our whole offensive line has done a great job," Kealakehe coach Sam Papali'i said.
Quarterback Tai Papali'i can throw (627 yards, 5 TDs) when necessary and also is a threat to run (192 yards, 3 TDs).
Defensively, the Waveriders have posted four shutouts and allowed only one touchdown in two other games.
But Kealakehe's most impressive feat this season did not show up in any statistics. The Waveriders won their first overall BIIF title with heavy hearts just seven weeks after teammate Royden Kalavi was killed in a car accident near campus Sept. 23.
"We went through so much this season — the whole gamut of highs and lows," Papali'i said. "We've gone through more this season than in the last five years put together."
Kealakehe's game against Hawai'i Prep on Sept. 23 was canceled, and all league games the following Friday were postponed because of bad weather. When the Waveriders finally played again, they lost to Kea'au 32-28, on Oct. 8.
Kealakehe then rebounded the next week with a 34-16 victory at Honoka'a and have been winning ever since.
"Through it all, the team regained its focus," Papali'i said. "To win the title with all the adversity, we went through so much. Hopefully it's made us mentally tougher and we can keep riding this wave."
Wai'anae has faced its own challenges recently, with two key starters injured. Senior quarterback Henry Keomalu sprained his ankle in an O'ahu Interscholastic Association semifinal loss to 'Aiea and sat out Saturday's victory over Farrington for third place, and junior linebacker George Kauwalu is nursing a stinger.
Matsumoto said Tuesday night both will make the trip and are "probable" for tomorrow, although neither is likely to start.
Backup quarterback Liko Manuel has filled in admirably for Keomalu the past two games, however, and the strength of the team has been its contributions from every member — starting with a shocking season-opening upset of Saint Louis.
"If you look at the history of Wai'anae football, they've got a tradition that we're trying to establish ourselves," Papali'i said.
It is a proud history that endured some pains the past few years, including back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the program began in 1959.
"Our community expects a lot from us, and as a staff we expect a lot from ourselves," Matsumoto said. "The last few years have been difficult, but hopefully we've brought the pride back to Wai'anae."
Reach Wes Nakama at firstname.lastname@example.org.