KAILUA-KONA — As the sun set on the eve of the BIIF Division I championship Thursday, three words served as a mighty motivator for Kealakehe’s players: Find your reason.
For months, stretching back to grueling offseason workouts, the overarching reason for the season was a BIIF title and finding a way to end Hilo’s five-year reign in Division I.
That goal added a little extra oomph to every rep, route and hit.
But now, with a successful regular season behind them, the only thing left for the Waveriders (5-2) to do is turn that reason into reality — something the program hasn’t done since 2012.
Hilo (7-0) and Kealakehe will meet up today at Wong Stadium for the Division I title, with kickoff slated for 7 p.m. The winner also punches a ticket to the HHSAA Division I state tournament.
“The season has been about finding the reason to stay the course, finding the reason to continually get better and put in the work,” Kealakehe head coach Sam Kekuaokalani said. “That’s kind of been our mantra and why we try to improve every day.”
In those final moments, as the dark enveloped Waverider Stadium and the final preparations for the title tilt came to a close, there was a sense of nostalgia that took over, especially for seniors like wide receiver Ikaika Pali.
“This could be my last game. It’s all or nothing. We have to leave it all out there. That’s the mindset,” Pali said. “Football has always been part of me, and I like making my family proud out there.”
While adding another banner to the gym at Kealakehe is reason enough, Pali said playing for each other has been a driving force for the squad, as well.
“A championship would mean everything, but knowing that we made it here is big, especially with these guys,” Pali said. “We train, sweat, cry and cheer together. We are not going to stop.”
The first time the D-I rivals clashed, Kealakehe was its own worst enemy. The Vikings flipped four turnovers into scores in a 45-23 win, including a pair of second half interception returns — one that went for 101 yards by Hilo DB Elijah Apao.
While far from perfect, the Waveriders still managed to score a trio of touchdowns — one more than the rest of the BIIF did combined all season against the Viks.
And that was with quarterback Jorden Himalaya banged up, not starting the game, although he entered quickly after the Waveriders went behind early. The team was also missing explosive playmaker Kainoa “Boo” Jones, who was sidelined due to an unsportsmanlike flag and ejection in the game prior.
“After that loss to Hilo, there was a bit of mentality shift,” Kekuaokalani said. “I feel good about our defense and our play in the trenches. I feel like we have improved in those spots, as well as our running game.”
Kekuaokalani admitted his team isn’t entering on a swell of momentum. Last week’s 16-3 loss to cross-town rival Konawaena was a bit of a letdown, with the offense only managing a field goal despite multiple chances on the Wildcats’ side of the field.
But the Waveriders were caught in a bit of a limbo leading up, not knowing if the game would happen until late in the week and not having anything significant to play for, unlike the Wildcats, who were playing for home field in the D-II title game.
Hilo, on the other hand, had the week off after Kamehameha-Hawaii announced a forfeit.
“Coming off the Konawaena game was tough – tougher than I thought it would be,” Kekuaokalani said. “It never ends dealing with young men, keeping them focused through the week. But we just stressed the importance and implications of this game, and it has helped get them dialed back in.”
Kealakehe’s last BIIF championship came well before this crop of players were even in high school. But the title tradition that was built during a stretch of eight titles in 10 years — from 2004-12 — still runs strong within the Waverider halls.
That’s thanks to a staff that includes many who won championships in Kealakehe blue, as well as Kekuaokalani’s efforts to remind his players of those teams and players who came before them.
The possibility of being the team that returns the Waverider program to glory — it’s just another reason for the ‘Riders.
“It means a lot to have the opportunity to play for a BIIF title. We don’t take it lightly,” Kekuaokalani said. “We worked hard for this opportunity all season and seeing the progress has been great. But we want that end result now.”