The first reaction was shock.
Then came resolve. At Konawaena, football has always been tradition, going back to the dynasty — 12 BIIF titles in a row from 1980 to ’91 — and the success in the 26 seasons since.
But traveling off-island to take on the Goliath on his home turf — Kahuku — is completely off the charts. The Wildcats, 9-3-1 last season, and OIA defending champion Red Raiders kick off on Saturday, 6 p.m., at Carleton Weimer Field.
“I think that’s the perception,” Konawaena coach Brad Uemoto said. “My first phone call was to my DC Kalae Lee. He told me I’m nuts. We talked for about 10 minutes and he became sold. The best way he put it to our staff was, you’re never going to coach for a more unorthodox head coach.”
Konawaena is coming off another BIIF D-II title, and a wild 53-50 win over Waipahu in the state tourney. The ‘Cats later lost to Lahainaluna 75-69 in seven overtimes during the state final. Still, great as the Lunas and Marauders are on the D-II stage, Kahuku is Kahuku. Planetary football mystique.
“Originally, when I had a meeting with our staff and I wanted to do it and make sure our staff was behind me. The consensus was, ‘you’re crazy, Coach, but whatever you decide we’re all in behind you. It was going to be the way we went about the Kahuku game. If we talked about being afraid or overmatched, coached or practiced like it, it wasn’t going to work. But we’re all on board with it. Truthfully, I took it because there were way more positives than negatives.”
Each team is dealing with the loss of premier quarterbacks. Sol-Jay Maiava transferred out after his sophomore season. Konawaena’s mass producer, Austin Ewing, is now at Southern Utah. Kahuku’s Thorton Alapa and Robbie Sauvao played quarterback under now-head varsity coach Sterling Carvalho at the JV level.
“They were successful JV quarterbacks. I know the offseason story is we lost Sol-Jay, but at Kahuku we always have the mentality of next man up,” Carvalho said.
The longtime assistant had a balanced approach to offense for years.
“Offensively, Coach Alema Atuaia, my OC, and myself and our offensive staff, it always takes an offense a little more time to catch up to the defense. We’re basically going to play the percentages. You stack the box, we’re going over the top. You back off, we’re going to smashmouth the ball on you,” Carvalho said.
The versatility and power of the offensive line is a plus. Enokk Vimahi enters his senior season as one of the highest-rated O-linemen in the state, if not the best.
“He’s the captain of our O-line. The captains are chosen by their peers, so obviously he has their respect. He is vocal to the sense that he’s willing to help is fellow offensive linemen. He’s there to teach by example,” Carvalho said.
Big Red has a thunder-and-lightning combo in the backfield. Toalei Lefau finished strong last year while Wes Alo-Maiava showed flashes of brilliance before and after injury.
“Toalei was huge last year, an inside runner with deceptively great speed and hands. Wesley, we’ll use him like a Swiss Army knife. He can play running back, we can put him in the slot, be a return man. And he’s healthy,” Carvalho said. “Toalei is our RBs captain. We have a sleeper who is a sophomore, we have a transfer in, but those (Lefau and Maiava-Alo) have separated as the playmakers right now, and they have experience. Their leadership is awesome, as well.”
Konawaena has a veteran in the trenches, linebacker/defensive tackle Alex Muti, but on paper, it seems to be a physical mismatch. Getting stonewalled by Kahuku’s defense wouldn’t be a surprise for most teams in the islands, but taking on a punishing offensive line — what can a defense that gave up 75 points to Lahainaluna last year do?
Motivation won’t be lacking.
“(Former Kealakehe Waverider and Washington Husky) Psalm Wooching helped us. Colt (Brennan) is helping,” Uemoto said, noting that former Kahuku assistant Brennan is back helping at Konawaena. Brennan once coached QBs at Kahuku.
“(Brennan) said, ‘I made some phone calls. I told them we’re coming for them,’ ” Uemoto said. “Psalm said something he learned from his coach, Chris Petersen: ‘Before you beat a team, you have to beat their name. If you’re afraid of Kahuku, there’s no sense in even going.’ “
Red Raiders defensive coordinator Sola Soliai has plenty of physical talent to work with. The unit features the ultimate multi-tacker, linebacker Miki Ah You, who coincidentally recently committed to Washington.
“Miki, to me, is our overall leader. He’s like (former LB) Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens,” Carvalho said. “He commands the defense and the offense. He’s a leader by example. Everything we do, he pushes 100 percent, front and center, pushing everyone.”
“I’ve seen him on tape,” Uemoto said. “He’s just athletic and you can just tell the way he can read, he’s very dynamic. He almost looks like a safety playing linebacker. Obviously, we’re going to have to run some RPO stuff just to keep him off balance. If we can somehow just neutralize that blitz, that pressure, it’s kind of like how when we played Radford (in 2015). I don’t know how much tempo Kahuku sees, but hopefully we can use that to our advantage.”
Konawaena’s freshman slinger, Sheyden Nahale, is in for a memorable career debut. He has two physical specimens to face off either edge. Carvalho is excited about defensive ends Tausili Fiatoa (6-2, 230) and Tuia Tupuola (6-4, 220). Kaonohi Kaniho also returns to bring an advantage at cornerback.
“We all want to get better, always looking to learn. Kimo brings his knowledge, helps the players from an old-school mentality. You see new blood and old blood on the field at the same time. Sola is always learning, and Kimo brings his knowledge from the past,” Carvalho said.