Nov. 21—The thrill isn't gone at Konawaena.
The mission just doesn't seem so impossible anymore. With less than 1, 000 students, Konawaena was comfortable in Division II football for decades.
The thrill isn't gone at Konawaena.
The mission just doesn't seem so impossible anymore. With less than 1, 000 students, Konawaena was comfortable in Division II football for decades. In four days, Konawaena defends its Division I football state title against OIA champion Waipahu at Mililani's John Kauinana Stadium.
"It's hard work. Big Island kids don't know what hard work is until they get to Konawaena and see what we to do to get to the state level, " wide receiver /safety Zedekiah Anahu-Ambrosio said.
The explosive junior has five FBS scholarship offers.
"They say we don't have competition (in the BIIF ), but they don't see how hard we work, " he added.
"Last year was like the excitement, a lot more, " senior quarterback Keoki Alani said. "This year, we're expected to be there. We know what we should do. The preparation that we do, all the little things that Coach makes us do to get ready for a game, you'd be surprised."
In 2022, five years after losing to Lahainaluna 75-69 in seven overtimes for the D-II state crown, the Wildcats captured the D-I state championship. As a junior, Alani passed for 3, 408 yards and 50 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Anahu-Ambrosio completed his sophomore season with 72 receptions for 1, 083 yards and 22 TDs.
This year, Alani has passed for 3, 994 yards and 56 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. He has completed 72 % of his pass attempts and has scored three more TDs on the ground. Anahu-Ambrosio has hauled in 80 passes for 1, 225 yards and 21 TDs.
In three seasons, Alani has completed 663 passes in 969 attempts (68.4 %) for 9, 056 yards and 126 TDs with 36 picks. The totals would be more if not for the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
There are very few communities that take pride in their high school football program the way fans in Kona do. It's timeless and provincial, but the vibe has evolved within the team.
"It's way different this year, way more business-like, " Konawaena coach Brad Uemoto said. "For the three weeks of preparation we had for this game, it was cleaner. Just more naturally another game rather than being a game of higher magnitude."
Alani sets the tone—never too high and never too low. The mobile slinger may have the strongest arm in the state, but Alani has a rarity in his hands : the freedom to let his playmakers go one-on-one against defenders deep downfield. That's the kind of opportunity that Wildcats receivers thrive on. Anahu-Ambrosio has the motor, the hands, the will to make every kind of play necessary for No. 7-ranked Konawaena (11-1 ).
For opposing teams, the savage part of studying the Wildcats is that Alani trusts his entire team. When Kapaa closed some of the windows for Anahu-Ambrosio, Alani found Austin Takaki and Abraham Ogata in the end zone as they overwhelmed Kapaa 37-19 on Saturday.
"Our offense is designed to spread it around, " Uemoto said.
With his teammates winning battles on offense, Anahu-Ambrosio had a busy day at safety with two interceptions.
"We involved him a lot more on defense in this game because of Kapaa's style of offense, " Uemoto said.
Back in the day, the Kona Marlins were king, boss and ruler of all things Pop Warner Football in West Hawaii.
Playing for the Marlins was membership into an elite society of gridiron giants. Nobody (almost ) ever beat the Marlins, who practiced religiously up mauka (Kealakekua ). There was barely and rarely a challenge to the Marlins islandwide, and the team funneled outstanding talent to Konawaena, which dominated the BIIF with football titles from 1980 to 1991, sprinkling in a few more as Kealakehe took control for several years.
In Kailua-Kona, a string of new names were adopted by Pop Warner programs. One of the names that stuck was the Leeward Steelers, who began to chip away at the Marlins' dynasty. By the time Anahu-Ambrosio was a running back with the Steelers, they were the new kings.
Alani was the quarterback of the Marlins after the power base shifted. Alani, who grew up in Hookena, hasn't forgotten his first meeting with Anahu-Ambrosio, who also played linebacker and safety.
"He was a little boy running around, tackling. He picked me off one time, " Alani recalled.
Anahu-Ambrosio, who commuted from Kawaihae to the Old Kona Airport for practice, remembers two interceptions, not one. Since becoming teammates at Konawaena, Alani and Anahu-Ambrosio have formed one of the greatest aerial connections in school history.
"We lost to Leeward Steelers every year. We're just having fun at 9 or 10 years old, " Alani said. "When he came to Konawaena, his personality, he's pretty easy to get along with. He became one of my close friends in high school."
Anahu-Ambrosio remembers a speedy Marlins signal-caller.
"He was all right. He was a running quarterback. They never really threw. The little Keoki couldn't really throw, " he recalled.
At 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 165 pounds, Alani dunks a basketball and has a vertical leap in the vicinity of 36 inches.
Anahu-Ambrosio, at 5-10 and 185 pounds, added 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason. He caught the attention of one of the nation's premier high school chiefdoms, Bishop Gorman, currently the No. 1 team in the country.
Anahu-Ambrosio went up to Henderson, Nev., and trained with the Gaels for a few weeks in the summer. He was prepared for a new adventure, but in the end, mom said come home. The idea of her son driving around Las Vegas before his junior year didn't sit well.
"I was driving. Going on the freeway and stuff. My mom didn't like that. My mom got in a big accident in high school. She didn't want that to happen to me, " Anahu-Ambrosio said.
The day after he returned to the Big Island, Anahu-Ambrosio was back at practice. The chase for back-to-back state championships was on. Alani and their teammates took it all in stride. From Billy Stephens to Aaron Sumida to Billy Ulu to BJ Ellis to Austin Ewing, the school has always produced college-level talent. The combination of Alani and Anahu-Ambrosio may be the Wildcats' best ever.
The work never stops. Heze Anahu-Ambrosio, Anahu-Ambrosio's father, is also the team's strength and conditioning coach. At a young age, Zed Anahu-Ambrosio became a competitive swimmer. He races the 50-meter freestyle for the Konawaena swim team.
"It's always been football and swimming. I was 9 when I started swimming. My dad liked it. It was no contact, stretch out your body and improve your lung capacity, " he said.
Alani hasn't lost any speed since those keiki years, always on the lookout for an edge. One day, he jumped in the Konawaena pool with his teammate.
"I went for a swim workout with Zed. It wasn't fun, " he said. "I was cramping up."
They have a mutual love for hunting. Their families often harvest pigs on the bountiful slopes of the west side.
"I started when (I ) was 5 or 6. My dad carried me on his back, " Anahu-Ambrosio said. "I always wanted to go with them. Hearing the dogs bark. Big pig, you shoot them. They're smart and they can bite you. All pigs are dangerous. I love fishing. Kawaihae, Kona. On the boat. My family, me and my brother, Chauncey. Fish are biting, we stay out there."
Alani doesn't think they will ever actually hunt together, but Anahu-Ambrosio is more optimistic.
Tradition keeps Konawaena flourishing more than two decades after Kealakehe opened its doors down in town. Families often send their children up to the old school they are rooted in rather than the new one, bigger school, even if it means driving 10, 20, 40 miles each way.
Alani grew up fishing off the shore of Hookena. He laments that times are changing a family and community tradition.
"I started fishing when I was around 5 or 6. Go in the canoe, go pretty far out, throw lures, catch onos. Fishing was like weekly before. Now we barely go in the canoes, maybe five times a year, " he said.
Tournaments are one way the community keeps fishing alive.
"Just to bring the fishing village back. There's still lots of fish, but I like hunting better. You stay on the ocean too long, you get cold. Hunting is easier access."
Finding a path to college has been different for the prolific players. Anahu-Ambrosio has a 3.0 grade-point average with scholarship offers from BYU, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah State and Washington State. Older brother Hezekiah Anahu-Ambrosio, who transferred from Konawaena to Timpview (Utah ) after his freshman year, signed with Nevada.
Alani has a 2.98 GPA, but no scholarship offers yet. He's not big on social media. He doesn't talk often about the future, but there's this : His favorite teacher is former Konawaena basketball player Ihi Victor, who teaches a college and career class.
One last game and the final chapter on Alani's prep career closes.
"I'll miss the way he runs our offense, " Uemoto said. "We lost Austin (Ewing ) to graduation, and it was a matter of finding our next leader. Even back in sixth grade, Keoki was making throws. The biggest thing we look for, which he had from the beginning, you've got to want to be that guy. It has to almost be a lifestyle."
Alani has a persistent hope.
"The darkest nights, " he said, "make the brightest stars."