You know, a few weeks back, it was kinda sad, as it is every season in every team sport, to see losing playoff teams close shop.
But now that we’re upon Championship Week, it feels like eons since those regular-season battles. Some teams play only six or seven games. But the squads still suiting up this week are well into double digits.
Life is good.
But the teams that fell in the semifinals over the weekend are sore, physically, mentally, right down to the pit of their souls. As Lahainaluna co-head coach Garret Tihada said, it’ll hurt for awhile no matter how successful the season was.
>> Bleed Maroon. It was a memorable season in so many ways for the Governors of Farrington High School. Early-season struggles. Working in a lot of new starters, including all five new offensive line starters, a new starting running back, and more. Then the amazing unbeaten run through the OIA Red East, second-place finish in the conference.
But the way the staff and school dealt with the disappearance of beloved senior Dayne Ortiz was surpassed only by the way the young men carried themselves. In the face of tragedy, they were there to support the Ortiz ohana, and then, one another. This is and was a talented team, but what fans across the islands will remember most is their heart. Long after the scores are forgotten, the 2013 Governors will be honored for the way they honored their missing friend — a brother, not just a teammate.
>> Sling City. The Campbell Sabers went further than ever in the D-I championships, but like Farrington, were on the losing end of a lopsided score. While Farrington was overwhelmed by Punahou 48-6, Campbell was outdone by OIA Red West rival Mililani 41-7.
It was a work of art in many aspects by the Trojans and Buffanblu. While Mililani was up against a team that knows the Trojans so well — the first time around, Campbell led 21-7 before losing 41-21 — Punahou hadn’t faced Farrington since a Week 1 scrimmage.
Both Mililani and Punahou were magnificent. Mililani’s defense was in lockdown mode with Rex Manu in the trenches and Kelii Padello storming in from the edge. They combined for six sacks. Ian Namu and the rest of the secondary — very much like Punahou’s in the sense that they don’t need to make flashy plays. They get the job done and round out their respective defensive units.
It was one of those semifinal rounds in D-I that was entirely decisive. Doesn’t mean Campbell and Farrington weren’t very good teams. But that extra week of play, of traveling inter-island, of more bruises and dings — all of it adds up at the tail end of a long season.
Chasing Mililani quarterback McKenzie Milton, a sophomore with major quicks and two weeks of well-earned rest … no fun for any defense. Vavae Malepeai’s wondrous sophomore campaign — more than 1,300 rushing yards — is already one of the greatest single-season efforts by a 10th grader. EVER.
One day, if it hasn’t happened already, prep football nerds (no insult intended since I’m one of them) will debate about which team had the better receiving corps, Mililani or Punahou.
It’s easy to compare the two offenses, but there are differences even as both use two-back sets, like to hit play-action passes. Punahou utilizes TE Dakota Torres. Mililani hasn’t really used a TE (except for goal-line jumbo sets) since another Dakota (Turner) graduated. Larry Tuileta, who almost effortlessly passed for 430 yards in the win over Farrington, isn’t prone to scrambling and running keepers like Mililani’s Milton.
But boy, can both QBs direct traffic. And we get to see that mind power at work one more time on Saturday.
>> King of the Raiders. So Kauai is the real deal, after all. They were seeded third by the committee that determines such things, even after an unbeaten KIF season. Then they came to ‘Iolani, the second seed, and rushed for more than 300 yards behind that massive offensive line in a 28-7 win.
It was just a few years back when the Red Raiders were all about the run and shoot, launching bombs and bullets all over the field. But they’re practical, and with first-year head coach Tommy Cox, the personnel is better suited to the misdirection game. Both Nick Abramo and Billy Hull, our guys who have seen Kauai’s wins in the state tourney, got good, long looks at the Red Raiders.
They may have some success against Kaiser in the D-II final. They might struggle just as easily. Lahainaluna, the top seed, gashed the Cougars for almost 200 first-half rushing yards on Saturday. Then the Lunas went stagnant against a Kaiser defense that completely dominated the second half.
Kauai is a bit of a mystery, and even if they were well scouted, how do you prepare as a defense for a center and guard who are both in the 6-3, 300-plus pound range?
>> Big Blue. Nobody was surprised by a close first half between top-seeded Lahainaluna and OIA White powerhouse Kaiser, even if the committee seeded the Cougars fourth. The HHSAA was certainly pleased with the big draw at War Memorial Stadium (estimated at 9,000).
Rallying for a 20-9 win, it was almost eerie how the Cougars silenced a massive Lunas crowd. The sea of red turned still, watching the visitors blast up the middle, race around end on sweeps. From Fitou Fisiiahi (two TDs) to Thomas Buntenbah-Leong to Rustin Saole, the ground attack looked every bit like an old-school offense.
Part of that success was due to the Kaiser defense, which plugged up the middle and stuffed Lunas quarterback Sione Filikitonga. The speedy junior had gobbled up chunks of yardage in the first half on keepers, but found hardly any room to wiggle through after halftime.
Jared Rocha-Islas had 62 rushing yards on just six carries before leaving with an injury late in the first half. Had he been healthy, the Lunas would’ve been a different team, maybe. But his yardage, like the 49-yard touchdown run, was up the middle, and Kaiser bottled that up in the second half.
What the Lunas would still need to do is throw the ball effectively, with or without JRI. For whatever reason, the Lunas didn’t throw the ball short much at all — which reminded me of the Campbell offense the night before. It’s probably not easy to justify working on things that aren’t needed when your team is unbeaten and really just thrashing other teams.
That’s why the early Campbell loss was so valuable to Kaiser. A loss triggers many things, including a rethinking of everything that worked and didn’t work. A win rarely does that.
In these two years since Rich Miano returned to Kaiser, it’s been a work in progress. It’s been a highly successful work, no question, but seeing leaders emerge, young men mature, the unified reaction to every up and down — mostly ups — is part of the adventure for a team that learned to fly so quickly.
So what happens now? What fills the final chapter of the season for the unknown Red Raiders of Tommy Cox, the laid-back football fundamentalist, and the upstart Cougars, led by their former college coach?
Both coaches are more conservative, throwback guys than experimentalists with high-risk streaks. They’re going to ride on their offensive and defensive lines, understandably so. There’s a certain simplicity in what they ask of their players, but the impact of those requests — the responsibilities — has been major.
Kauai is one win away from its first state football crown. So is Kaiser, which took the Oahu Prep Bowl in 1979 under Ron Lee. While the rest of the audience in Aloha Stadium will see two teams thirsting for a D-II title, I’ll see a retro game filled with Kauai’s tricky misdirections and Kaiser’s fullback-driven smashmouth persistence.
Maybe Kaiser refrains from that dynamic toss sweep. Maybe the Cougars return to their power-I attack. More likely, what will matter is how Kaiser handles that Kauai offensive line, which averages 259 pounds per man. That monsters-of-the-midway showdown between Kauai center Devan Ferreira (6-4, 320) and Kaiser nose tackle Manase Palu (5-9, 310) would be worth watching on every snap, perhaps as fascinating as classic sumo matches pitting yokozuna.
The trenches. It still matters, even in what has usually been an aerial show in D-II. Two run-first teams. D-I has two balanced offenses.