Two communities with proud prep football traditions got the validation they had long sought when their teams achieved their first state football championships at any level on Nov. 26.
Now Konawaena and Waimea players and coaches are the toast of their respective towns.
Konawaena, which had come up agonizingly short in recent years, broke through with a thrilling 38-28 win over Waipahu for the HHSAA Division I title at Mililani’s John Kauinana Stadium. Right before that, Waimea dominated King Kekaulike, 45-6, to cap a dominant three-game run through the Division II tournament.
Both schools enjoyed robust fan showings that packed one side of the Kauinana stands, and the teams got a heroes’ welcome upon returning to the Kona and Lihue Airports, respectively.
Waimea coach Kyle Linoz, a 1991 Menehune alumnus and former quarterback, told Spectrum News that friends and family decorated the airport baggage claim with balloons, streamers and glitter.
“I’m not even sure that’s legal,” Linoz said with a laugh.
The Menehune will be featured guests at a Kauai County concert on Friday night and will lead the pack in the upcoming Waimea Light Parade, he said.
It was the second straight year that a Kauai Interscholastic Federation team won the D-II state title. Kapaa won the Garden Isle’s first state football crown in 2021, and the Warriors were celebrated there by all. But this title for Waimea meant something else entirely to the island’s tight-knit west side community.
“We’ve always believed in our program throughout the past,” Linoz said, “and I think this helps solidify past KIF championships and past Neighbor Island bowl championships that our community and our kids on our side can play with the entire state.”
For Konawaena, its title game was sweet redemption after falling at home in the D-I state semifinals last year, and coming out on the wrong side of one of the most remarkable state tournament games to date, a seven-overtime, 75-69 setback to Lahainaluna in the 2017 Division II final.
Wildcats coach Brad Uemoto thought he knew what a title would mean to Kona, but the true impact hit home when he walked around the community in the week after the game. At shops and restaurants, and on social media, it was everywhere.
“I always say I’m just a football coach and we’re just football players,” Uemoto, a 1997 Konawaena graduate and former receiver, told Spectrum News, “but it’s just amazing to know what football means to this community, and what it’s always meant to this community from the ‘70s. So many great players and coaches that have gone through our program. Just to be able to do something like this magnitude and represent every player and coach that has walked on our field, is just so amazing.
“Even for the people that never played the sport but always supported, always watched, it’s so special to everybody.”
Konawaena’s plane got a water salute upon its return, and like Waimea, the team received a warm welcome in the baggage claim. From there, a motorcade of more than 100 cars – complete with police escort – journeyed from the airport to the high school.
The Wildcats did one last ritual walk, like they would before a game, down their stadium’s stairs and they ran out onto the field to pose for pictures together.
Wildcats players were treated to free bowling at KBXtreme, have a dinner planned at the Manago Hotel and Restaurant and will appear in the Kona Christmas Parade on Dec. 10.
“It’s going to be pretty much nonstop for a few months here,” Uemoto said.
The teams found success by sticking to their identities.
The Waimea Menehune rarely deviated from their old-school, run-first, run-second, throw-seldom ethos. In fact, they doubled down on it this year.
They threw only one pass in the championship, and it wasn’t by junior quarterback Kameron Apilado. Apilado instead ran for 228 yards on 11 carries, including touchdowns of 70 and 85 yards, to set the tone against a Kekaulike team with a similar identity.
Waimea gained strength and readiness for states from a tough slate of KIF games that included three games, and two losses, against Kapaa, which is now in D-I.
The sea of blue-clad Waimea fans who flew over for the title game was comprised of not just friends and family members of current players, but also alumni from various years who now live on various islands, Linoz said.
“It was tremendous the whole season, but that was out of this world,” Linoz said. “We didn’t expect that much people. But our team got really close and we have a lot of the families involved. It was a lot of love and support that grew into the community.
“We’ve been asleep for so long on the west side, I think everybody’s glad to be in the forefront again. They’ve always been supportive, but now it’s even more so.”
Konawaena fans similarly came out in droves. All season, they’d packed their 1,500-seat stadium and had strong showings in road games on their huge island.
Konawaena, with its spread, high-tempo offense, survived a night of wild momentum swings with Waipahu a week after a 27-24 win over another OIA team, Aiea, in Kona.
After a season of blowouts in Big Island Interscholastic Federation play – the Wildcats were not played within 27 points by another team from their island – the last of 11 straight wins made for a thrilling end to the year.
And also one of confirmation for a very experienced team – there were 22 Wildcat seniors – that had flown under the radar, especially on Oahu.
When it posed with the trophy, Konawaena players flashed "fives" with their hands in support of the late Maui Ellis-Noa, a senior last season who died in a car accident just a few weeks prior to the game.
"You could just feel him here tonight, man," Uemoto said after the game. "He was watching over us."
A preseason 30-7 loss at Granger High of Utah was the inspiration the team needed for the rest of the season.
“I think the lack of media, the unknown throughout the season, our lopsided scores, people took it as our league being weak rather than putting much emphasis on how good our team really was,” Uemoto said.
In overcoming the ejection of star receiver Zedikaiah Anahu-Ambrosio and the inspiring and impactful return of Waipahu’s dynamic quarterback Tama Uiliata from an early injury, Konawaena became the second Big Island school to win a state title at any level, after Hilo in 2017 and 2019.
“We made history for our school and it just feels good to bring this back to our community supporting us throughout the season,” said sophomore kicker Nakoa Ige, who booted the 36-yard field goal that put his team ahead by two scores in the waning minutes, after the game.
“I think we showed that we’re meant to be here. We can play with these OIA teams, not just our own island.”