Pride of Hawaii: Konawaena Wildcats football team gets a grand homecoming after winning school’s first state championship

  • Konawaena Wildcats display their trophy for division 1 state champions Sunday morning at Old Kona Airport Park. (Laura Ruminski/WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Konawaena Football coach Brad Uemoto and his son Trez with the state championship Division 1 trophy at Kona International Airport Sunday morning. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Konawaena Wildcats Ro'onui Satta-Ellis and Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio bring home the State Chamionship trophy Sunday at Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Ohana and supporters of the state champion Konawaena Wildcats greet the winning team Sunday at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminskli/West Hawaii Today)

  • The Konawaena Wildcats Division 1 State Football Champions are gereeted with a water lei Sunday at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Konawaena Wildcats on a convoy down Alii Drive display their State Championship trophy Sunday morning. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

The Konawaena Wildcats received a grand homecoming Sunday morning, just hours after the undefeated BIIF champs shut down the Waipahu Marauders to bring home the school’s first state football title.

After the team’s flight from Oahu touched down at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole shortly before 11 a.m., the Wildcats were welcomed with water salute over the Hawaiian Airlines jet as it taxied to the gate. After the athletes and coaches disembarked the plane, they were surprised by a plethora of supporters and well-wishers.

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“It feels amazing. We celebrated up there (on Oahu) when we won with all those fans that came up to support us — it felt so surreal. And, to come back home and just see another level of support is just amazing for this community,” said Head Coach Brad Uemoto.

The Wildcats claimed the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I Football Championship after defeating the Waipahu Marauders 38-28 in a hard-fought matchup Saturday night at Mililani High School on Oahu. It’s the first time the 101-year-old South Kona school has brought the trophy home to the Big Island.

After the warm welcome at the airport, the celebration continued with a convoy of over 100 vehicles from Old Kona Airport Park to bring the trophy to the Konawaena High School campus in Kealakekua. At the school, even more family and friends were gathered to celebrate the historic win.

“I’m just a football coach, we’re just football players and we know how much football means to this community — but at the end of the day, it feels so special to know that what we do on the football field can affect the community like this,” said Uemoto moments before the procession took off. “I’m just so happy for Kona.”

The No. 2-seeded Wildcats were undefeated in Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I play this year, claiming their second straight BIIF title. The Wildcats lost in the semifinals in 2021.

The 2022 team earned its spot in Saturday’s title game by defeating 27-24 the Aiea Na Alii in the HHSAA Division I Football Semifinal held Nov. 19 in Kealakekua.

Quarterback Keoki Alani posted his 50th touchdown pass of the season in the championship game, and defensive end Chray Flannery scored a touchdown on a blocked field goal attempt in the dramatic win over the Marauders Saturday night.

“He currently holds the BIIF record for touchdown passes and yards passing. He had an incredible year,” Uemoto said of Alani, a junior. “We got to witness one of the greatest quarterback performances in a season and that’s special with all the players that we’ve had come through this league.”

The Wildcats managed to pull out the win Saturday despite star sophomore wide receiver Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio being disqualified shortly before halftime due to a second penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after catching Alani’s 50th touchdown pass.

“He was obviously our playmaker on offense, and a starter on defense, and he meant so much to the team this year. To lose him right before halftime, obviously, it put a wrench in our plans and we had to make adjustments with personnel. We put some guys in that stepped up big time for us,” Uemoto said.

That’s what the team does, persevere — no matter the obstacle presented.

“Our word in our program is ‘persevere,’” Uemoto said. “We talked about it at halftime. We’re facing adversities and we had to learn how to persevere and these kids came through. They are the true definition of perseverance.”

Now that the season is over, Uemoto is looking to 2023 knowing that 22 seniors will be leaving the program, many of whom are taking play to the college level.

“It’s bittersweet, but what a way to go out,” he said. “Next year starts in February.”

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