HONOKAA — Junior quarterback Kaialii Nakamoto knew the stakes. He wanted to send his 15 senior teammates out with a win in their last game, especially at home. But it was a mountain to climb because Keaau’s own senior, quarterback Bryant Respicio-Mercado, had a monster performance and built a double-digit lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Dragons trailed 41-30 with eight minutes left. The ball was on their 36. It was a long haul to the end zone on third down. The season and careers of the 15 seniors were closing down.
Nakamoto dropped back and fired a deep ball to a streaking Jahsaiah Yoshizumi, who was tackled at the 1. Two plays later, Nakamoto scored and then ran in for the two-point conversion, cutting the score to 41-38 with 6:01 remaining.
The Dragons didn’t want to give the ball back to Respicio-Mercado, who had thrown for five touchdowns. They gambled with an onside kick. The Cougars recovered, but Honokaa still had one final shot at a comeback.
However, Keaau prevailed over Honokaa 48-38 in a BIIF Division I game on Friday night at the Dragons field, providing an emotional bear hug for both teams.
For the Dragons (2-9, 2-8 BIIF), who jumped up from Division II, the final game for the 15 seniors will be remembered for the way they fought to the end.
“We improved and got better,” said an emotional Honokaa coach Fred Lau. “We never gave up.”
The Dragons recovered a fumble, drove to their 25 with 3:03 left, with visions of another explosive play, down by three points. But Masen Silva intercepted a Nakamoto pass, and Keaau scored one last time.
After Honokaa received the kickoff, Silva got another pick, and the Cougars (4-6, 4-6) ran out the clock, sending their 18 seniors out with a farewell victory.
Respicio-Mercado was 18 of 47 for 432 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He opened the first quarter with scoring bombs of 48 yards to Westin Joseph and 60 yards to Shaden Abejon.
Joseph had three catches for 112 yards and two TDs, Abejon had three receptions for 102 yards, and Bronson Respicio-Mercado caught eight passes for 91 yards and one touchdown from his brother.
Duncan Castro had 37 yards on 10 carries, and D’Shane Bannister added 22 yards on three attempts and had a touchdown.
Honokaa junior quarterback Isaac Jardine went on his own airborne assault. He closed the first quarter with a 6-yard scoring strike to Warren Tabucbuc and then threw TD passes to Kalaijah Salazar for 24 yards and to Mana O’Neil for 18 yards in the second quarter.
Jardine was 10 of 19 for 187 yards and two TDs and two picks; Nakamoto went 2 of 9 for 79 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Honokaa’s ground game bulldozed for 220 yards on 27 attempts, an 8.1 yard average. Salazar, a senior, rushed for 134 yards on six carries, and Diesel Martinez added 84 yards on two attempts.
Yoshizumi had two catches for 90 yards and a TD, and Kalai Ahuna, one of those 15 seniors, added 75 yards with three receptions.
In the third quarter, Martinez electrified the Honokaa crowd with a 65-yard touchdown on a kickoff, which put the Dragons ahead 30-14.
Then Respicio-Mercado got enough time in the pocket and picked apart Honokaa’s pass defense. He threw a 55-yard TD strike to Abejon, a 30-yard scoring strike to his brother, and a 15-yard touchdown pass to Joseph to close the third quarter.
After Keaau’s final touchdown, Bannister’s 15-yard run, Bryant Respicio-Mercado drilled the extra point. He might have kicked a PAT in junior varsity, but it was his first on the varsity level and last as a senior.
Like any good kicker, he was confident.
“I knew it was going in,” he said, adding that the comeback win would be one to remember. “It feels great how we won. Our team came together like a family, and we were close.”
The Dragons, proud in defeat, felt the same way.
Keaau 14 0 20 14 — 48
Honokaa 8 16 6 8 — 38
Keaau — Westin Joseph 48 pass from Bryant Respicio-Mercado (Ikaia Immel kick)
Keaau — Shaden Abejon 60 pass from Respicio-Mercado (Ikaia Immel kick)
Honokaa — Warren Tabucbuc 6 pass from Isaac Jardine (Diesel Martinez run)
Honokaa — Kalaijah Salazar 24 pass from Jardine (Jahsaiah Yoshizumi pass from Kaialii Nakamoto)
Honokaa — Mana O’Neill 18 pass from Jardine (Yoshizumi pass from Nakamoto)
Honokaa — Martinez 65 kickoff return (run failed)
Keaau — Abejon 55 pass from Respicio-Mercado (Ikaia Immel kick)
Keaau — Bronson Respicio-Mercado 30 pass from Bryant Respicio-Mercado (Immel kick)
Keaau — Joseph 15 pass from Bryant Respicio-Mercado (kick failed)
Keaau — D’Shane Bannister 2 run (Immel kick)
Honokaa — Nakamoto 1 run (Nakamoto run)
Keaau — Bannister 15 run (Bryant Respicio-Mercado kick)