KEALAKEKUA – It would be easy to focus on the departures.
More than most Big Island schools, the Konawaena football team has seen a number of impact players transfer away from the Orchid Isle throughout the pandemic: quarterback Garrison Higgins and the Anahu-Ambrosio brothers – with a pair of scholarship offers from BYU in tow – to Utah, WR/DB Kaden Baptista to California, lineman Braydon Bailey to Kahuku High School on Oahu.
Sixth-year head coach Brad Uemoto, however, isn’t dwelling on the guys no longer suiting up for the Wildcats; he’s only worried about the players strapping on their shoulder pads and making their way to Julian Yates Field for practice.
“That group we lost was really going to be the nucleus of guys that were going to carry us into the season and create that leadership role,” Uemoto said. “It’s hard to lose them, but at Konawaena we always pride ourselves on playing who shows up and competing with whatever we’ve got.”
Seniors Maui Ellis-Noa and Kamaehu Makanui will lead the way for the Wildcats on defense; Ellis-Noa in the trenches and Makanui in the secondary. Joining in the secondary will be a handful of players likely to play both ways: juniors Ro’o Satta-Ellis and Isaac Clement, as well as freshman AJ Blanco.
“He reminds us of a lot of good football players we had in the past,” Uemoto of Blanco said. “Cameron Howes is a name that comes up. Dustin Cho, guys like that at that safety position that are kind of undersized but just a playmaker.”
When on offense, delivering the ball to those playmakers will be sophomore quarterback Keoki Alani. Though he’s yet to play a snap in high school, Uemoto sees plenty of potential in his young signal caller.
“He’s a really good kid, puts in a lot of work,” Uemoto said. “I’m excited to see the next three years for him as the next kid to take the reins at quarterback. First year of playing high school football, and it being varsity, he’s obviously going to go through some growing pains. We’re willing to put him through that because he has a bright future.”
Junior running back Kawelu Kiawe will step in as the lead back, providing a physical, north-south style of running as a compliment to Konawaena’s pass-first scheme.
“He runs very hard, very physical,” said Uemoto.
Kiawe will be running behind an offensive line led by Tumalosi Denison and Nakoa Ige. Though Ige is just a freshman, he’s already earned high praise from his head coach in preseason practices.
“I’ve never seen a freshman as good or as advanced at offensive line as he is,” Uemoto said. “He’s going to be a really good football player for us the next four years.”
The Wildcats will be tested early, facing perennial BIIF power Hilo in their opener Friday night. Having lost a handful of their own players to mainland transfers, the Vikings share Konawaena’s uncertainty and inexperience heading into the 2021 season.
Uemoto is confident in his team, having seen a strong bond already shared early on.
“This is a really good group; they have good camaraderie amongst each other,” said Uemoto. “They like each other; I see that in the first few weeks.
“It’s a group that’s very even across the board. I don’t feel like – and it’s no disrespect to some of our better players – there’s no kid that really stands out. They’re all going to be that same level of player across the board. I don’t think we’ve ever had that before. We’ve always had some really good players people could key on. This year, it’s just different. We’re going to be more team oriented, we’re going to play a lot of team football and it’s going to be deep into execution.”