Waveriders coach says Tuata is another Owens
Some of the most eye-popping numbers being posted this season come from a Waverider named after an angel.
Kealakehe's Gabriel Tuata was prolific as a junior running back last year. This season, he's taken his craft to a higher level.In nine games, including two against teams from California and Canada, Tuata has rushed for 1,376 yards for a whopping 16.7 average per carry. He has run for 26 touchdowns and three more as a pass catcher and kick returner.
"I get letters from all over. I would like to see Gabe go to the University of Hawaii," said first-year head coach Cliff Walters. "This is another Chad Owens. He's an excellent receiver. Great hands, great understanding of routes, but he runs the ball very well."
Colorado coach Dan Hawkins has expressed interest in Tuata, who is 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds with a 42-inch vertical.
"His ability in the open field is unbelievable," Walters added.
His play-making ability, along with a talented defensive unit, has helped the Waveriders go 9-0, including 7-0 in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation. Getting the respect that is due to Tuata and Kealakehe, however, is a test in patience. Despite the unbeaten mark, the Waveriders are ranked seventh in the Star-Bulletin Top 10.
Walters, a VETERAN head coach who mentored a high school program in Canada for 30 years, took the reins at Kealakehe this year. It's possible he prefers seeing other teams on the radar rather than his.
"I'm OK with laying low. I'm from Louisiana and we have two kinds of snakes. The rattlesnake makes a noise before he attacks, but the water moccasin lays low in the water and surprises you," Walters said. "I'd rather be the water moccasin."
Levi Legay, a 6-3, 270-pounder, moved from center to tackle and has prospered. Stanford will visit the Kealakehe campus this week for a second look. Utah, Hawaii and Weber State made the rounds last spring.
Fetu Longi, another talented senior, has been a stalwart, dominating linebacker.
"He's 5-11, 215 pounds of muscle, and he's fast. He breaks a 4.7 (40-yard dash)," Walters said.
The Waveriders, who began playing varsity football in 1999, have long been the largest school in the BIIF. In addition, football is practically religion in the Kona region dating back to the 1960s.
It was in the 1980s when coach Jim Barry solidified the program at Konawaena, which was the lone high school in the region at the time. Konawaena, which nearly upset then-No. 1 Saint Louis, was a versatile team that won 11 BIIF titles in a row.
Wildcats quarterback Aaron Sumida threw for more than 3,000 yards in his senior year, but the league remains a conglomeration of run-first teams due to often-inclement weather.
This season, with former offensive coordinator Walters in charge, the Waveriders have opened up the playbook.
In fact, the mix of four-receiver sets are practically exotic material for a program that clung to the run in textbook smashmouth football style under former coach Sam Papalii.
"Some people might have felt that the kids wouldn't be able to try different things, but they're the same kids as the ones I coached (on the mainland). The culture's different, but the kids are the same," Walters said.
Tuata remains the cornerstone.
His 142-yard effort in a 59-7 win over Kohala last weekend was a typical effort. He carried the football only five times, which is not far off from his usual workload.
Kealakehe's dominance in a league filled with schools of small enrollments has meant limited playing time for Tuata.
His best game in league play, 245 yards at Hawaii Prep, was an 11-carry afternoon.
Walters' team may be untested. Very untested. The BIIF has long been the weakest of the state's five football leagues, and neither of the nonconference teams the Waveriders met early in the season are particularly good.
Bassett (Calif.), which fell 57-7 at Kealakehe, lost its first four games; all by wide margins.
Still, this is a program that lost at home to Waianae 28-21 in the first round of last year's state tourney.
If Kealakehe runs the BIIF table, voters in the Star-Bulletin Top 10 may still have a hard time swallowing an untested team at anywhere above No. 7. The 'Riders may be better off without extra attention. While they get to scout OIA teams via live, statewide broadcasts, those Oahu coaches have few opportunities to scout neighbor island foes.
The Waveriders are certainly kings of the Big Island. Their point differential, 461 points scored to 27 allowed, is undeniable. What happens, though, if Kealakehe wins the league's D-I state berth and enters the tourney without having been truly battle-tested since last year's loss to Waianae?
"If I had my way, we would play in a league on Oahu. It does this team no good to be 9-0 and to have punted only three times. How does that prepare us for an Oahu team?" Walters said.