On a big defensive play, Waiakea football coach Neil Azevedo has a tendency to wonder alone along the sideline in the opposite direction, far from his team, to get a better view.
On the Warriors’ biggest play Saturday, Azevedo relied on someone’s else’s point of view.
Senior linebacker Kade Kamau made the play call then he helped make the game-saving stop on Keaau’s two-point conversion with 36.7 seconds left, preserving a 14-13 Waiakea victory before a festive homecoming crowd at Ken Yamase Memorial Stadium.
“He was telling me a play and I said, ‘No, coach, eagle,”’ Kamau said, referring to an alignment. “Once I saw them going for two, I knew they we’re going to run it.
“I told my boys that we got to get ready and push as strong as we could. We were all in.”
Cougars quarterback Bryant Respicio-Mercado was stopped just short of the goal line on a keeper up the middle, and the Warriors recovered the onsides kick to improve to 3-1 in BIIF Division I, a drastic improvement from their first winless league season in 2017.
“I knew they were going to go for two,” Azevedo said. “Expect the unexpected with (Keaau) coach Leo (Abellera). He’s a good coach.”
The Cougars (1-3 BIIF Division I) took over at their 40 down a score, and at some point as Respicio-Mercado engineered a drive that lasted just short of two minutes, Abellera decided he would go for two if Keaau scored. On third-and-14, Respicio-Mercado connected with Iokepa La’a for a picturesque 31-yard touchdown strike down the right sideline.
Rather than play for a college-style overtime, Abellera went for the win.
“(The team) wanted to go for two,” he said. “Sometimes you come up a little short. Feel disappointed, but it’s more about how you react. Are you going to sulk or work hard.”
If only for a second, Kamau offered a new twist on the BIIF mantra: let the players play … and coach.
“Coach knows what he’s doing,” he said, “but he can lean on me.”
For much of the warm but manageable afternoon, Waiakea played uneven on offense and leaned on its defense.
Keaau tried to take advantage of good field position after three takeaways by pounding the ball with its running game, but the Warriors allowed just 94 yards on 25 carries – 29 of those yards came on Storm Quilinderino’s 29-yard touchdown run to cut Keaau’s deficit in half at 14-7 in the third quarter.
“These kids, they don’t stop,” Azevedo said, “and they have a lot of heart.”
The Warriors and their fans will need sturdy ones the way their home season is playing out. A pair of wins at Waiakea have been decided by a combined three points. The defense also was required to make a late stand in a 21-19 win against Honokaa on Sept. 1.
“These kids are just happy to win,” Azevedo said. “Hopefully, we have good confidence after this game.”
Plus, a heart-stopping win beats a soul-crushing loss anytime.
Last season, Waiakea endured a three-game home stretch in which it was outscored 158-8.
“The coaches push us harder,” Kamau said. “We have to get stronger and build on what happened today.”
Waiakea, which faces Hilo next week, bogged down after Xavier Toyfoya’s touchdown run on the Warriors’ first possession. Quarterback Justin Nakamoto-Baltazar threw a touchdown pass to Cheyn Tam-Switzer in the third quarter but also was intercepted three times – by Shaden Abejon, Aiden Armstrong-Reiger and Emelio Acia.
The junior and first-year starter went 13 of 26 for 178 yards and was resourceful – he hit Jason Kua-Cantan for a 35-yard gain on the first scoring drive and was 3 for 3 on the second – and the Warriors were a resilient 8 of 14 on third downs.
“I told him not to panic,” Azevedo said.
Wailana Stewart ran for 56 yards as the Warriors generated 121 on the ground.
The Cougars were called for seven penalties – a drastic improvement from the 49 that flew on them in their first three games.
“I was happy about that,” Abellera said in his first postgame remark.
Respicio-Mercado’s second-half performance was noteworthy as well.
After throwing for just 17 yards in the first half, the junior and first-year starter got into the rhythm, finishing 12 of 24 for 135 yards overall with an interception (by Layne DePeralta.)
Respicio-Mercado found Patrick Mears for four completions, including two big ones on the final drive, and he also hit Isaiah Akana for a 17-yard gain from midfield in the closing minutes.
Respicio-Mercado was undeterred when 15-yard spot foul pushed the Cougars back, eventually hitting a streaking La’a in stride near the goal line.
There was one big play left, and Abellera didn’t think it decided the game.
“I think it was the first-half execution, that I thought determined the game,” Abellera said. “We couldn’t get the run game going in the first half. That was the game right there.”
Keaau 0 0 7 6 – 13
Waiakea 7 0 7 0 –14
Waiakea – Xavier Toyfoya 15 run (Kaikeao Kane-Kalua kick)
Waiakea – Cheyn Tam-Switzer 13 pass from Justin Nakamoto-Baltazar (Kane-Kalua kick)
Keaau – Storm Quilinderino 29 run (Emelio Acia kick)
Keaau – Iokepa La’a 31 pass from Bryant Respicio-Mercado (run failed)