KEALAKEKUA — The setting seemed all too appropriate for Konawaena’s core four.
Along the sideline they called home at Julian Yates Field for four years, and with a healthy, supportive crowd in the stands, the next wave of Wildcats put pen to paper to solidify their future college plans on Monday afternoon.
Quarterback Austin Ewing headlined the signings, inking a scholarship deal with Southern Utah University — a Division I FCS squad that plays out of the Big Sky. The Thunderbirds went 9-3 last season.
“It’s a big stress reliever,” Ewing said shortly after making his decision official. “It was great to be able to talk to these colleges and coaches, and trying to see where I would fit in. But while it was fun, it was also pretty stressful.”
The trio of other Wildcats all inked spots at junior colleges in California. Linebacker Seau Amor and running back Chauncey Mariani-Louis are heading to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, while offensive lineman Keanu Caldwell signed on with College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California.
Konawaena head coach Brad Uemoto told stories about each of his former players — tales about everything from road trip antics and Taco Bell being left under beds, to locker room conversations that led to clutch comebacks.
But it was truly a bittersweet moment for the Wildcat skipper, who understands what kind of production he has to replace with his loaded senior class leaving.
“They have set the bar and helped create the expectations here. Even when they were contributors when they were younger, it was kind of depressing because we knew we were going to lose them all at some point,” Uemoto said. “But as a coach, these are the joys of the job. The wins and championships are nice and a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, when you see kids go off and be able to further their education and become better citizens in our community is huge. That’s the most special thing as a coach.”
All four of the signees were multiyear contributors during Konawaena’s BIIF threepeat, which also included a trio of state semifinal appearances and probably the most legendary loss in state championship history, coming in seven overtimes to Lahainaluna, 75-69.
“It’s just a matter of changing the culture,” Uemoto said of increasing the number of student-athletes that sign-on to the next level — junior college, Division I, or otherwise. “As the younger kids see where these older groups are going and why, they will learn the process and understand what it takes, foremost taking care of academics starting their freshman year.”
Having taken over at his alma mater three years ago, Uemoto has been inextricably linked to the graduating seniors, in particular Ewing, who has shouldered most of the pressure and expectations as Konawaena developed into a perennial Division II state power.
During his three years as a full-time starter, Ewing passed for 7,481 yards and accounted for 105 total touchdowns (93 passing, 12 rushing), garnering three BIIF Offensive Player of the Year honors, which makes up just a few notches on his loaded resume. Uemoto has no doubt Ewing’s skill-set will translate to the next level with the Thunderbirds.
“He’s built for college football — his competitiveness, his athleticism. He’s going to do all the right things to get on the football field,” Uemoto said. “I think in a few years, Hawaii will look at him and be like, ‘We should have got that guy.’”
Ewing’s not the first BIIF standout to get a chance from the Thunderbirds. Former Kealakehe playmakers Jared and Naia Ursua — older brothers of current UH standout John Ursua — also played for Southern Utah and had solid careers. Jared Ursua coaches the wide receivers with the Thunderbirds and helped bring Ewing on board.
Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren sees a lot of similarities between the three Big Islanders.
“This is the third Ursua — just like Naia, just like Jared,” Warren told The Spectrum & Daily News on signing day. “We are going to give him a chance at quarterback but he’s athletic enough to play anywhere else. He’ll be a good player for us.”
There was some talk about Ewing shifting to wide receiver during the recruiting process — and Southern Utah release actually lists the BIIF’s best passer as a pass-catcher. However, Ewing reiterated his desire is to stay under center, while staying true to his team-first approach.
“Their quarterback coach saw my tape and liked what he saw,” Ewing said. “I’ve always been a quarterback. I wouldn’t mind the change if I had to so I could get on the field to help my team, but it was a big thing for me to be able to compete at that position.”
Ewing said he’s visited Utah in the summer time, and is looking forward to some cold-weather football. It will be a far cry from the conditions in Kealakekua, on the field where he made memories playing football alongside his Wildcat brethren.
“It went by so fast, meeting all these people that I’m proud to now call family,” Ewing said. “Best experience of my life.”