Blueprint for success: Undersized but undaunted, Dragons look to recapture magic of yesteryear

  • BRAD BALLESTEROS/Tribune-Herald The Honokaa High Dragons.

  • BRAD BALLESTEROS/Tribune-Herald Honokaa sophomore Keaka Cagampung can catch passes, but he's also a key member of the Dragons' secondary.

  • BRAD BALLESTEROS/Tribune-Herald One of eight Honokaa seniors, Justin Pascua uses his speed and smarts to help fuel the Dragons' running, and he's the leader of the defensive secondary.

  • BRAD BALLESTEROS/Tribune-Herald Junior Aka Spencer will quarterback Honoka's spread option offense. When he's not taking handoffs in practice, junior Sampson Akau mans the tackle spots on both sides of the line

Honokaa football coach Fred Lau has always had that motivational magic. He could inspire small and short Dragons to play much bigger than their size. In a parallel universe, he would have been Tony Robbins, motivating people to get off their couches and run through mountains.

In 2009, he pulled off one of the greatest upsets in BIIF history, for any sport, and gave the small town of Honokaa, population of just more than 2,100, one of its greatest ever sport memory. That year, the Dragons defeated a bigger and faster Kealakehe team, which had won the previous five Division I titles, for the school’s first BIIF championship since 1974.

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Honokaa played a level up that season. The school’s enrollment that year was 746 and the roster was 45, numbers better suited for Division II. The Dragons even went on the road and smashed the Waveriders 37-14 for the BIIF crown.

It was Lau’s first year at Honokaa, and he understood the blueprint to winning: Get his players to play hard, play as a team and most of all to believe. He was named BIIF coach of the year, his quarterback Sage Johnson landed offensive player of the year and linebacker Nona Ambrosio, who stood 5 feet 6 and 150 pounds, was the defensive player of the year.

To show that the championship was no fluke, the Dragons earlier defeated the Waveriders 7-6 to seize the BIIF first-round title, a game that featured a lopsided stat sheet. Kealakehe outgained Honokaa 254 to 102 yards and had more opportunities in the red-zone (20 yards and in), 4-1, and dominated ball possession, running 64 plays to 43.

How did Honokaa win?

The Dragons followed the oldest strategy in the book: They made fewer mistakes. Kealakehe had three turnovers, one which led to a touchdown. The Dragons had one harmless turnover.

They showed toughness and stopped the Waveriders four times on fourth down, including a final drive at the Honokaa 37 with 12 seconds on the clock. But most of all the Dragons believed in each other.

“We all believed that we could win,” Johnson said after that 7-6 nail-biter at Honokaa’s rain-soaked field.

There were some rough times that followed the magical 2009 season. Honokaa failed to qualify for the Division II final for the next nine years and went 2-8 during a one-year jump to Division I in 2019, the year that Lau returned as coach.

The Dragons are back in Division II, a level that better suits them after Konawaena jumped up to Division I in 2019. Kamehameha won the BIIF D-II title in 2019 over Hawaii Prep.

Honokaa has a roster of 36 and eight seniors, including Justin Pascua, who started at slotback/safety two years ago.

“He’s got good speed, reads his blocks well, and is a smart player,” Lau said. “Even on the defensive side, he reads his coverages well. He’s the quarterback for the defensive backs.

“We don’t have tall or oversized kids. We’re small in stature. This team reminds me of 2009.”

Right now, the Dragons are working on alignment and assignment. Saint Louis coach Cal Lee had the best quote about the concept: “Football is all about alignment and assignment. Line up in the right spot, and when the ball comes your way make a play.”

Honokaa will run a spread option offense, and junior Aka Spencer will be the quarterback with Pascua, senior Kaeo Nakamoto and junior Micah Acdal rotating in at running back.

“Aka has had one year in the offense, part of the spring,” Lau said. “He’s very competitive, like Sage. He likes to compete and is a good leader for us.

“We’ll rotate three guys at running back. Justin will go two ways, and Kaeo. Micah is small but quick like a jitterbug.”

Jake DeLuz, a senior, will start at left tackle, sophomore Jaden Demello at center, junior Lopaka Akau at right guard, and his cousin, junior Sampson Akau at right tackle. Kamuela Andrade-Stout, an undersized senior at 5 feet 11 and 230 pounds, will start at left guard.

“Kamuela is not really big, but he’s smart and has good technique,” Lau said. “He does his assignments and responds well.”

The Dragons will run a 5-2 defensive front, and will start junior Talen Cazimero at left end, DeLuz at nose guard, Sampson Akau at tackle, junior Zachariah Kanehia-Naho at tackle, and junior Kai Alip at right end.

Uhane Mock-Chew and Joe Badon, a pair of juniors, will start at linebacker.

“They’re good run-stuffers and cover well in passing situations. They’re very solid,” Lau said.

Pascua, sophomores Keaka Cagumpung and Damien Tagabi, and senior Blaysin Bernard Erece will highlight the secondary.

Like Sage Johnson, Spencer will double as the QB and kicker. Daniel Valera, a sophomore, will handle punting duties.

When Lau talks to his undersized, underdog Dragons, he doesn’t forget the motivational magic of 2009.

“I remind them that being undersized doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive,” he said. “We have to do like how we did in 2009 with the numbers. We have to blend together, be a band of brothers. That’s what it’s got to be.”

Schedule

Friday HPA, 6 p.m.

Oct. 29 at Kamehameha, 5 p.m.

Nov. 4 Kohala, 6 p.m.

Nov. 12 Pahoa, 6 p.m.

Nov. 20 at Ka’u 11 a.m.

2019

2-8 BIIF D-I; 2-9 overall

Head coach

Fred Lau (second season, second stint at school)

Quotable

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“I remind them that being undersized doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive. We have to do like how we did in 2009 with the numbers. We have to blend together, be a band of brothers. That’s what it’s got.

– Lau