Konawaena Wildcats enter Kahuku’s lair
STEVEN ERLER / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER
Kahuku quarterback Thorton Alapa and the second-ranked Red Raiders open the season by welcoming Konawaena to the North Shore on Saturday.
Maybe it is the old-is-the-new-new format of Oahu’s public and private schools clashing on the football field in regular-season play.
Or maybe not. The new “Open Division” left perennial powerhouse Kahuku longing for action. For months, with new head coach Sterling Carvalho in charge, the Red Raiders were the prom attendee without a date.
“I surrendered to the fact that we weren’t going to have a preseason game. We called every Division I team on Oahu and the neighbor islands, and nobody wanted to play us. Everybody was booked or they had prior games,” Carvalho recalled.
Note that Kahuku and other Open Division teams aren’t lining up for one another in nonconference play, and sensibly so. But Carvalho got a glimmer of hope one day in June. His former head coach, Reggie Torres, had a chat with Brad Uemoto, head coach of Division II powerhouse Konawaena.
“Then Brad called me,” Carvalho said. “I give props to Konawaena. It’s the level of play everyone is looking forward to, the competitive nature across the state. Konawaena wants to get better.”
Instantly, the Big Island Interscholastic Federation defending D-II champions were scheduled to fly to Oahu and make their inaugural trek to the North Shore. The teams kick off on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Carleton Weimer Field. Of course, Uemoto conferred with his staff before committing. The decision wasn’t quite instant. Konawaena has a long, proud history on the football field, but walking into the hornets’ nest voluntarily had to be borderline insane.“
Originally, when I had a meeting with our staff and I wanted to do it and make sure our staff was behind me,” Uemoto said, “the consensus was, ‘You’re crazy, Coach, but whatever you decide we’re all in behind you.’ It was going to be the way we went about the Kahuku game. If we talked about being afraid or overmatched, coached or practiced like it, it wasn’t going to work. But we’re all on board with it. Truthfully, I took it because there were way more positives than negatives.”
Carvalho knows his team has double the roster size and almost double the physical size on paper. It’s an unusual task for anyone entering his first game as Kahuku head coach.
“When they put their 2s in, we’ll be gracious hosts and get a look at our 2s. We’re going in there to win anytime we step on the field,” he said. “We’re diligent on our end as far as never taking any opponent lightly. We have film on them and we’re scouting them. We have our offense and defense scout teams. Our players know, week-in, week-out, we have our grind and we prepare for our opponent. We’re looking at this game to assess all our players. Everyone knows with this (Open Division) schedule, you have to develop depth.”
So what exactly are the benefits of facing many of the state’s premier athletes, who have more bulk and, in many scenarios, equal or better agility, explosiveness and speed?
“I really like when Pat Hill was over at Fresno State, it was anytime, anybody, anywhere. When he turned that program around, it gave them that moxie,” Uemoto said. “Not arrogance, but it became an identity that they weren’t going to back down. They were going to give everyone their best shot. At Konawaena, we’re always outsized, outmatched, and at the end of the day, we’re going to compete to the end and give it our best shot.”
Konawaena’s freshman slinger, Sheyden Nahale, is in for a memorable career debut. He has two physical specimens to face off either edge. Carvalho is excited about defensive ends Tausili Fiatoa (6-2, 230) and Tuia Tupuola (6-4, 220). Kaonohi Kaniho also returns to bring an advantage at cornerback.
While Uemoto hearkened back to Fresno State, there’s one distinct difference. The Bulldogs cashed in with big road-game paydays while knocking off giants during Hill’s peak years as coach. Konawaena? No cut of revenue. Not even bus rental money.
“We’re getting nothing. We’re even paying for our buses. The hope is they come to Konawaena next year with a return trip and give us a good gate. I think a lot of people would come to the game. I can’t remember them ever coming to the Big Island,” Uemoto said. “It’s Sterling’s first game, it’s an audition, and I think the (Kahuku) community will turn up. Kahuku fans are known for being hostile, and that’s part of why we took this game, to get that experience.”