“You’re the kicker, right?” one fan asked.
“Yes,” said Keanu Keolanui, the man, the myth and the legend for Hilo High, at least for the foreseeable future.
Keolanui patiently accepted countless congratulations, stopped to take pictures with fans he had just met and smiled for the camera, all the while clutching his game ball.
It was the ball.
“It’s nice, but I think there is too much attention to me,” he said, “and not recognizing my teammates, who got me to the point where I could get that field goal.”
There was plenty of recognition to go around Saturday after the Vikings’ state championship football team landed – ahead of schedule, of course – at Hilo International Airport and was greeted by an enthusiastic welcoming party that included Mayor Harry Kim.
But Keolanui was the most popular man around, less than 18 hours removed from converting a last-second 55-yard field goal, a state championship record-tying boot and a career-high, that sent Hilo past Iolani 20-17 to clinch the school’s second Division I crown.
The Vikings (14-0) hadn’t really needed a ball to bounce their way all season, but that changed when time expired Friday night and Keolanui’s kick sailed through the Aloha Stadium air in Honolulu and bounced off the crossbar.
“I didn’t know it right away,” he said, “but when I saw it bounce, I knew it wasn’t coming back, I knew it was going over and I just started celebrating.”
Though confident his teammate would make the kick, senior linebacker Kalen White said everything seemed to move in slow motion.
“The best feeling,” said White, whose first missed tackle all season came in the ensuing celebration. “I actually jumped right over the pile.”
Keolanui said it was a coach from Kapaa who presented him with the game-winning game ball, which had been signed by all his teammates and coaches and will soon find a home in his room in a glass case.
“With all the time he puts in during practice,” coach Kaeo Drummondo said, “he definitely deserves all the attention he’s getting.
“He’s steadily improved his craft and put in a bunch of effort with a lot of pride.”
Keolanui’s kick capped an exhausting yet triumphant journey for a Hilo senior class that includes 17 starters, many of whom have been hard at work the past 10-plus months trying to erase the memory of a loss in the 2018 state title game.
“Very, very bittersweet,” Drummondo said. “Feels so good for these kids who put in the hard work, but it’s also sad that we lose such a good group of young men, but that’s the nature of the beast.”
A soccer player for Hilo, Keolanui didn’t play football last season, and he almost didn’t come out for the team this season until his friends and teammates convinced him to join once practice was well underway.
The Vikings could have survived just fine without a place-kicker during the BIIF season, but Keolanui was pivotal in the state playoffs, converting four field goals, the shortest of which was a 37-yarder.
“I realized I missed it,” he said of why he came out. “I wanted to help my boys my senior year.”
Drummondo spent much of Hilo’s dominant BIIF season trying to find ways to teach his team to embrace adversity.
At times, it seemed like a manufactured process, but adversity became real Friday night when the first half ended in disaster: Meki Pei scored on a 94-yard punt return with no time on the clock, putting the Vikings in a 17-3 hole.
“There a lot of times when they could have thrown in the towel, but they refused to,” Drummondo said. “They could ether fold in the face of adversity or be resilient.”
Also frustrating for Hilo was that it was flagged for 12 of the 13 penalties called in the game, losing 124 yards because of the markers.
“That’s disappointing,” Drummondo said. “The way I look at it that means we’re not coaching all that well. But you have to live in the moment”
For Hilo’s juniors and underclassmen, they can relax and refresh for a little while if they choose before the dead period ends in January.
For the seniors, the next chapter begins. White has two all-star games on tap and hopes to play in college and Keolanui will report to Hilo soccer practice on Monday. Elijah Apao, a four-year contributor and two-time state champ, will make the quick turnaround to the wrestling season.
“From freshman year, I’ve never really experienced this kind of moment right here,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a ride and a moment to live in.”