KAILUA-KONA — For the Hamakua Cougars, a win in the Pop Warner unlimited championship game was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to the sport, while never giving up despite a few tough losses along the way.
Several of the Cougars’ players have been playing together since they were 5 years old, and they had never won a title until defeating the Leeward Steelers 19-16 on Sunday at Kealakehe High School’s Waverider Stadium.
The win also was sweetened after the team fell just short in last year’s pee wee championship game, a contest the Steelers won in double overtime.
“After last year, I told them that if we get back to the championship game we were not going to let the next one slip away,” said Hamakua head coach Dawson Alip. “We are just a team from a small town so this win means a lot to us.”
Alip credits the victory to his players, saying the team built itself.
“These kids made this team,” Alip added. “They took it upon themselves to go out and find more kids to play. They worked hard this year.”
The game against the Steelers was a defensive battle. Leeward tried to use their running attack to their advantage, something they were able to do successfully in the first meeting between the two teams.
However, heading into the half, scoring was hard to come by with both teams knotted up at 8-8.
In the second half, the Cougars took an advantage only took see the Steelers tie the game at 16-16 after a short kickoff on the ensuing drive.
Then, Hamakua got a lucky hop. Actually, they got several lucky hops on one play.
With less than three minutes to go in the game, the Cougars completed a pass over the middle, but the ball was fumbled. However, it was fumbled forward and Hamakua recovered 20 yards later on Leeward’s 15 yard line.
The Leeward defense stepped up to stop the drive, but Ayzen Cummings connected on a 22-yard field goal, giving the Cougars the lead with 2:06 to play.
Just seconds later, the fate of the game was sealed with a Cougars interception.
“This win was a long road traveled for several members of the team,” Alip said. “It was lucky we got that fumble. The game could have gone either way.
Pee Wee champs
In the pee Wee championship game earlier in the day, the Leeward Steelers dominated from start to finish, defeating the Kona Marlins 34-0. The win wrapped up the fourth championship in a row for Leeward, as it rolled through every opponent this season.
“It was unbelievable,” said head coach Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio. “They finished every team this season by mercy rule. Since I have been here, for eight years, I have never seen a pee wee team do that.”
The Steelers were led by players the team has dubbed the “Fab-Five:” Landon Shimabukuro (QB, FS), Kainoa Kamehaiku (RB, LB), Zedekiah Anahu-Ambrosio (RB, SS), Keawe Navas-Loa (WR, RB) and Shaden Ako (WR, CB).
Three of the players, Zedekiah Anahu-Ambrosio, Lavas-Loa and Ako have been members of the team for the last three titles.
“These five players, they hunt on defense like lions,” Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said. “On offense, they move the ball at a fast pace. They suffocate teams. It is a pick your poison kind of situation.”
Defense was the key of the title game at Waverider Stadium. The Steelers did not allow a first down. The team also scored on all but one drive, which resulted in a fumble.
While the “Fab-Five” stood out this season, the coach was quick to point out that this is not what made the team special.
“What makes this team special is that there are no individuals,” Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said. “Everyone is an athlete.”
The Kona Marlins grabbed the other championship victory on the day, defeating the Panaewa 14-8 in the morning game.