Hilo High prides itself on preparing for every football opponent in the same manner, a philosophy that will come in handy for the Vikings’ HHSAA Division I semifinal rematch against Maui High.
No disrespect intended, coach Kaeo Drummondo said of the it’s-just-another-game-mantra, but “don’t make the game bigger than it is. Understand personal and scheme.”
The Sabers figure to be similar to last year in many respects when the teams kick off at 7 p.m. Friday at Keaau High. Same coaches, similar style and many of the same players.
But make no mistake. They’re a different animal.
“Our goal is pretty much to take down No. 5,” said Hilo cornerback Elijah Apao, alluding to Naia Nakamoto, a bulldozing running back. “Last year was the hardest time for me. They don’t have that kind of running back on the Big Island. Looking forward to it this year. I think we have him.”
The reshaped D-I playoffs – the state’s elite are competing in the Open Division for the second consecutive year – inarguably leveled the playing field for schools such as Hilo and Maui. The Viks (8-1) were the first to the punch last season, beating the Sabers 26-7 at Wong Stadium for their first state D-I playoff victory en route to their first state championship.
Nakamoto, listed at 5 feet, 10 inches and 210 pounds, has a way of tilting the playing field in favor of the Sabers (5-5). The junior ran for a Maui Interscholastic league record 1,353 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine league games, according to the Maui News.
“He’s a great runner, and you can see it on film again this year,” Drummondo said. “They seem to still want to keep the ball on the ground for the most part.
“It’s going to have to be a team effort to tackle (Nakamoto). It’s going to take a front controlling their gaps and it’s going to take everyone pursuing the football with relentless effort.”
Nakamoto accounted for much of Maui’s offense last year. Hilo contained him in the second half, but he busted the Viks for a 67-yard touchdown run that sent the game to the half tied 7-7 and ended up with 134 rushing yards and also completed a 33-yard pass.
The top-seeded Vikings had to replace four-all BIIF selections from a year ago in the front seven and they aren’t as big this season, primarily due to youth, but senior running back Kaleo Ramos has seen the unit steadily improve in practice.
“Honestly they’ve progressed a lot from the beginning of the season,” Ramos said. “It was rough, because we have a lot of underclassmen, but they just work and play their hearts out.”
Of the seven touchdowns Hilo allowed in eight BIIF games, five came against Kealakehe. Of Hilo’s league opponents, the Waveriders offer the most comparable physical challenge to what Maui will bring, Drummondo said.
“Kealakehe might be a little bigger,” he said, “but very comparable styles.”
The winner advances to the state championship game Nov. 24 at Aloha Stadium against either Iolani or Waipahu, which plays on Oahu in Friday night’s other semifinal.
The Sabers, who will be playing for the fourth consecutive week, have endured an up-and-down season, winning three in row, then losing three in row before beating Baldwin 29-20 on Nov. 2 to avenge a loss to the Bears two weeks earlier and capture their third MIL crown since 2014.
Brex Delray has taken the reins at quarterback in Maui’s spread offense, and in passing for more than 600 yards he’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.
“We have to expect the run, but you can’t just assume they’re going to run,” Drummondo said.
Hilo, coming off a second consecutive two-week break, doesn’t have a hammer like Nakamoto, but it offers more balance thanks to the maturation of junior quarterback Kyan Miyasato, who’s completed 80 of 145 passes on the season for 1,307 yards, with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Four of the picks were in the BIIF opener against Hawaii Prep.
The Vikings have three receivers – Fiki Aguiar (23 catches, 504 yards, seven TDs), Guyson Ogata (24, 369, eight), Kalae Akui (24 catches, 363, three) with at least 20 catches.
Ramos is coming off his best game, a 144-yard effort in the BIIF title game against Kealakehe on Oct. 26, and running behind a rebuilt offensive line that’s strengthened as the season has continued, he leads the ground attack with 642 yards and 5 TDs on 106 carries.
“(Maui) definitely has a lot of big bodies up front,” Drummondo said. “They clog up those inside gaps and make it tough to run inside.”
Said Ramos: “We have to execute and can’t be scared.”
Has Hilo ever been scared?
“Never,” Ramos said.
After last season’s state breakthrough at Wong, this will be Hilo’s first “home” playoff game at the Cougars’ stadium since a 26-25 loss to Leilehua in a first round game two years ago.
Drummondo would have much preferred the game be played at Wong, and the feeling in Vikings camp is if it rains Friday night the field conditions could become more of an issue than if the game were at Wong.
“No matter what,” Ramos said, “our (school practice) field prepares us to play on any field.”
If Hilo is looking for an X-factor, it could come from Apao and Ogata in the return game.
Both are dangerous with the ball in their hands, and if it looks like Apao has gotten more opportunities as of late, that’s by design.
“Sometimes I steal the ball,” he said with a smile. “I need more stats.”
The junior, 5-5, 145, excels in pass coverage, returning three interceptions for touchdowns, but he has a plan if he ever has to tackle Nakamoto one-on-one.
If Maui goes low, Apao will go lower.
“Take the legs, wrap up and wait for the defense to help,” he said.
Aug 4 @ Campbell * L, 54-14
Aug 31 Hawaii Prep W, 32-0
Sep 7 @ Honokaa W, 24-0
Sep 21 @ Kealakehe W, 45-23
Sep 29 Waiakea at Wong Stadium W, 40-0
Oct 5 @ Keaau W, 42-13
Oct 12 Kona at Wong Stadium W, 25-0
Oct 19 KS-Hawaii at Wong Stadium W, Forfeit
Oct 26 Kealakehe at Wong Stadium W, 25-11
Aug 10 Kauai* at War Memorial L, 28-14
Aug 18 @ King Kekaulike W, 41-20
Sep 1 Lahainaluna at War Memorial L, 28-3
Sep 15 Baldwin at War Memorial W, 44-6
Sep 21 K. Kekaulike at War Memorial W,41-13
Sep 29 KS-Maui at War Memorial W, 34-22
Oct 6 @ Lahainaluna L, 38-0
Oct 20 Baldwin at War Memorial L, 24-14
Oct 26 @ KS-Maui L, 21-17
Nov 2 Baldwin at War MemorialW, 29-20
* Nonleague game