A few minutes before midnight Friday, the Aiea football team broke its postgame huddle by singing “Happy Birthday” in honor of Na Alii senior Pohaku Kealoha-Cambe.
Before the serenade, the senior receiver celebrated four touchdown catches, including the decisive score in Aiea’s 47-43 shootout victory over Kaiser to open the regular season.
“I couldn’t imagine anything better,” Kealoha-Cambe said after a dizzying game that featured seven lead changes.
Kealoha-Cambe finished the night with six catches for 148 yards and four scores, surpassing his totals of last season when he caught four passes for 38 yards and a touchdown. He made one catch for two yards in Aiea’s preseason loss to Damien, but was Aiea quarterback Kobe Kato’s primary target on Friday.
“They trust each other real well,” Aiea coach Wendell Say said. “They’ve grown together.”
Running back Isaiah Ripley balanced the offense with 128 yards on 17 carries and turned a potential broken play into a 27-yard touchdown when he scooped up an errant shotgun snap and rumbled to the end zone late in the second quarter.
Aiea didn’t have a rusher go over 47 yards in a game last year and Ripley became the first to venture into triple digits since Fika Tuli (105) and Mana Kaahanui (102) both accomplished that feat in a win over Pac-Five on Aug. 16, 2013.
Kato rebounded from a rough outing against Damien to throw for 252 yards and five touchdowns to overcome three interceptions and led Aiea to its highest point total since a 53-6 win over Kaimuki on Aug. 10, 2012.
“I’m proud of them because we made a lot of mistakes and our kids were able to overcome that and settle down and play,” Say said.
On their first connection, Kato hit Kealoha-Cambe on a slant over the middle and the receiver broke away from the Kaiser secondary for a 48-yard touchdown. A 12-yard touchdown completion, again on a slant route gave Aiea 21-20 lead in the second quarter.
Kealoha-Cambe ran down a deep ball from Kato early in the third quarter for a 60-yard touchdown that pushed Na Alii ahead 40-30.
Kaiser scored the next two touchdowns to reclaim the lead at 43-40 with just under 52 seconds left in the third quarter.
After a holding penalty on the kickoff pushed Aiea back to its 18, Ripley opened the ensuing drive with a 25-yard run. Na Alii moved to the Kaiser 38 over the next three plays and sophomore Ferenisi Lualemana — a 5-foot-8, 280-pound defensive lineman who wears No. 99 — lined up in the backfield and broke loose for a 25-yard run. Two plays later Kato found Kealoha-Cambe running to the post for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Just a simple switch route,” Kealoha-Cambe said.
While Kaiser racked up 437 rushing yards, with Jensen McDaniel accounting for 246 and three touchdowns, the Aiea defense contributed to the Na Alii point total with Brian Taamalemalo-Nasau’s fumble in the second quarter and came up with two stops in the fourth quarter to protect the lead.
Na Alii stuffed the Cougars on fourth-and-1 at their 17 and got another turnover on downs on Kaiser’s final possession. Facing fourth-and 25, Kaiser attempted a fake punt with Nicolas Tom taking a pitch on the perimeter. Tom got upfield but came up well short of the first down with 4:27 left.
Aiea picked up two first downs and was able to run out the clock to seal the win a year after Kaiser rolled to a 52-7, which was later forfeited due to an ineligible player.
“It was big because least year we got smashed,” Kealoha-Cambe said, “so that pretty much motivated us.
“We came out with the victory and I can’t imagine a better birthday than this.”