Despite loss, Wildcats return champions

I left one of — if not the best — Hawaii high school games in history early.

No, not to beat stadium traffic. With an hour to catch the last flight out of town, I made my way out of Aloha Stadium after the sixth overtime between Konawaena and Lahainaluna. Right before I got to my car, the crowd erupted.

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The noise was coming from the Lunas’ slightly more populated side of the stadium and it didn’t sound good for the Wildcats, which the radio broadcast confirmed shortly after turning my car on.

After being on the H1 for less than a mile, Lahainaluna scored, sealing a 75-69 win, a second consecutive title and keeping the Wildcats — and the BIIF — from its first, at least until Hilo claimed the championship one game later.

The saying goes nobody remembers second place, but history might recognize these Wildcats a bit differently.

Shortly after getting to my gate with just minutes to spare, I realized I wasn’t the only one to leave early. The airport in Honolulu was spotted with green and red shirts, fans of both the Lunas and Wildcats who had left early to try and make the final flights of the night. Nobody expected to be in that situation for a game that kicked off at 2 p.m.

Some traded war stories about getting to their flights on time, while others tried to gain insight on how the final possessions shook out.

“How many? Seven!” I overheard from my seat in the plane.

Yes, seven overtimes — but that’s just the start. The game was the longest (four hours and 10 minutes) and highest scoring (144, breaking previous record of 129) in Hawaii high school history. Not just state tournament history, but Hawaii high school history.

Those are just the big records that fell, and by the time the final buzzer finally rang, the history book writers were close to running out of ink.

The game that both teams refused to lose was exhausting, not just for the players, but for the fans as well.

Both well-travelled groups of supporters shook Aloha Stadium as the game went through its ebbs and flows. But as the overtimes advanced, there was a noticeable decrease in decibels as the anxiety grew.

With each overtime period, every play became magnified, making it easy to forget the the moments that added up to make the basketball-like final score.

From Harry Hill’s acrobatic punt out of the end zone in the third quarter to keep the Wildcats within striking distance, to Tyler Libarios’ shoestring catch in the sixth overtime and Hunter Wehrsig’s two-point snag that tied the game with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter — it all mattered in the epic season finale.

That’s not to mention everything Austin Ewing and Chauncey Mariani-Louis did to put the team on their backs to keep the Wildcats in a game against the defending champs. The duo carried the ball a combined 68 times for 258 yards, and Ewing completed 33 of his 55 passes — the record for completions and attempts in a state tourney game, besting the marks he had set two week ago in a 53-50 victory over Waipahu in the semifinals.

There were simply too many clutch contributions to count — for both teams.

As the Ironman-like excursion entered the latter OT periods, it became a matter of depth, a category Lahainaluna held a big advantage in. Just a glance at the offensive stats reveals that.

Konawaena used two ball carriers to resounding success in Ewing and Mariani-Louis, but the Lunas had 10 players receive a carry — three in double-digits. And five players in red jerseys threw a pass in Lahainaluna’s complex offense that had more looks than New York Fashion Week.

It was the same story for the Wildcats’ defense, which battled admirably against the ground and pound attack of Lahainaluna that ran the ball a whopping 72 times in the physical affair.

It’s a tired saying, but Konawaena left everything on the field. After a game like that, it stings to hear, “It could have gone either way” or “both teams leave the field winners.” But make no mistake, the Wildcats returned to the Big Island without the koa trophy, but champions, in more ways than one.

Head coach Brad Uemoto has always seen the larger picture when it comes with his team, building strong bonds with his players and making the “Zoo Crew” a group the community in West Hawaii could rally behind.

The sentiment has been echoed by his players, including Ewing, who even as a high school senior had the poise and eloquence even most professional athletes don’t possess after an emotional loss.

“It’s been my dream since I was a little kid to finally step on this field and play the way that we played. We gave everything we had. I told my team, no matter what happens I’m going to love them either way,” he said just minutes after the loss. “We put it all on the field and the only thing that didn’t go our way was the championship.”

Ewing is part of a core group of seniors who have led Konawaena on a historic run of three consecutive BIIF titles, two state semifinal appearances and the first state championship berth for the storied program.

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But take away all the numbers — and there are a lot of them — and its easier to see the even more important goal this program has accomplished.

Hail Konawaena.