Pete Carill, the legendary Princeton basketball coach who used throwback offensive schemes to keep his Tigers competitive against big-time colleges, once said that putting high-flying scorers like Michael Jordan into his sets would make them even better.
When Kahuku implements its traditional running lanes out of its jumbo hybrid formation — unveiled against Waianae in the OIA regular-season finale less than three weeks ago — it looks much like something out of the 1940s. Just switch out 200-pound linemen of a bygone era for wooly mammoth, 300-pound bruisers.
It is, as Kapolei coach Darren Hernandez said, like going into a “time warp.”
And yet, defensively, the Red Raiders adapt and adjust in complex, modern ways. They had to against Kapolei on Saturday, facing a freshman slinger (Taulia Tagovailoa) who had passed for 534 yards in a game recently.
The blend of old and new, and the buy-in from their players, reaped the reward of a 56-10 playoff win over Kapolei on Saturday night. For their coach, it’s all about the day-to-day, week-to-week and nothing more. Moments after the win over Kapolei, Vavae Tata asked a simple question.
“Who do we play, anyways?”
There was a pause. He asked again. It’s not coachspeak or anything like that for the first-year head coach at Kahuku. When they prep for a new opponent, the Red Raiders don’t glance ahead at the schedule or playoff bracket. And, for the record, they will play Farrington on Friday at Aloha Stadium.
“We keep telling them every week, we’re going in 0-0 and we’re just hoping to be 1-0 at the end of the week. As long as we’re in the ascending mode, which I believe we are, but we still haven’t played a complete game,” Tata said.
After the win over a persistent, but worn-down Kapolei squad, Tata was far from satisfied. Maybe it was the nine penalties for 98 yards, but that’s relatively low compared to some earlier showings this fall by Kahuku.
Maybe it was the 13-yard average on kickoff returns. Or getting to Tagovailoa just twice for sacks. Maybe it was none of the above.
“I’m still looking for that complete game. Hopefully, it’s around the corner,” Tata said.
The Red Raiders rushed for 431 yards on 48 carries, most out of their not-yet-patented, but highly effective throwback formation that recalls an era of leather helmets and wooden goal posts standing on goal lines. Defensively, they shut down Kapolei’s ground game (11 carries, minus-5 yards).
This is how zoned in the Red Raiders are. Their players spend so much effort on fine-tuning every aspect — PK Kekoa Sasaoka was a kickoff touchback machine nearly every time, except once when he faced a 20-25 mph wind — that they don’t all necessarily spend time studying film.
“Uh, I don’t even know if we watched film on them,” said Kesi Ah-Hoy, who ran for 191 yards and four TDs as a wildcat QB once again. “We just want to do what we know.”
Kekaula Kaniho studied video. The Kahuku cornerback watched again and again, studying Kapolei’s offensive tendencies. That led to two of his team’s four interceptions, including a 72-yard pick-six and a leaping one-handed snag near the goal line.
“Kekaula played a phenomenal game. Shoot, that one-handed catch there that stopped them from getting in the end zone — unreal,” Tata said. “We pride ourselves on not letting any opponents score on us. Hat’s off to Kapolei. They scored 10 on us and did a great job. We have to work on our mistakes and get better.”
“I just watched film a lot on my spare time,” Kaniho said. “That slowed the game down for me.”
The Red Raiders look more and more like the dominant defense that carried the program to state championships in 2011 and ’12. Kaniho, Stokely Botelho and Keala Santiago have been among the best anywhere in coverage and support. Hirkley Latu, a 6-foot-4, 208-pound senior, had been a blitzing phenom of late, but is also rangy enough to cover in space. He nearly had a pick in the second half, which really means it’s incredibly unfair — a basketball center who can play outside linebacker with the agility of a safety while rushing passers like a defensive end.
That’s one thing the “Sharks” of those recent title teams didn’t have. For all of their athleticism, versatility and smarts — safety Kawe Johnson was an all-state defensive player of the year — they didn’t have a defender as tall as Latu in the pass-defense mix.
Latu blamed himself for the lone Kapolei touchdown, noting that he thought there would be help over the top.
“It was miscommunication,” he said.
The grimace said it all. Even after a 46-point win. But even with Tata’s supreme standards, the Red Raiders know they’re playing great football. Four interceptions were crowd-pleasers at Carleton Weimer Field, for sure. But that willingness to be patient, bend between the 20s — Tagovailoa accumulated 356 passing yards on 36-for-63 passing — and come up with stops in the red zone was indicative of a mature defensive unit.
“Our defense has been playing lights out. All credit to Coach Vae and our staff. It’s fun for all of us to be able to switch roles,” Latu said of their versatility on defense. “I feel like there’s no weak links on this team.”
It’s classic. It’s leather-helmet football. Great defense. Nonstop, punishing ground attack. Superb special teams. Kahuku is on a quest to win championships. If that means throwing the ball just five times per game, so be it.
They’re doing it, as Hernandez said, with “lethal precision.”
Sometimes, old school is the best school.