Truth be told, Tyrese Tafai would have rather spent his birthday on the field with the rest of his Campbell teammates.
The junior linebacker, who has missed more than half of the season with a shoulder injury, could only watch in street clothes as the Sabers fell to Mililani 24-2 in the Open Division semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships on Friday night at Aloha Stadium. Campbell trailed 7-2 at halftime but turned the ball over five times to let the Trojans pull away.
“Next year, I feel like it’s gonna fuel our fire,” said Tafai, who holds an offer from Nevada. “Our team is young and we’re gonna be better next year.”
Darren Johnson’s second year at the helm in Ewa Beach was an improvement over year one. The Sabers (8-5) secured the OIA’s final bid in the state tournament after falling short to Waianae in the third-place game in 2017. For a team that has considers itself young, the lack of experience caught up in crunch time.
“We had some turnovers that cost us,” Johnson said. “Our youth showed up tonight and it showed in some areas of the game but we’re excited about what’s gonna happen to us in the future.”
On Friday night at Aloha Stadium, Campbell’s plan to neutralize Dillon Gabriel, the state’s all-time passing leader, worked to near perfection.
The southpaw struggled throughout the game, completing just 11 of his 28 passes for 119 yards and no touchdowns. He was also picked off by Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala and Pokii Adkins-Kupukaa.
Mokiao-Atimalala was on the field nearly the entire game on Friday, adding three receptions for 17 yards. His younger brother Titus caught five passes for 48 yards and finished the season with a state-best 14 touchdowns, 1,385 receiving yards and 75 receptions.
Jeremiah Tauai led Campbell with 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack on Friday. Peter Manuma finished with five tackles and also returned kickoffs for the Sabers.
Tafai, Adkins-Kupukaa, Tauai, Manuma and both of the Mokia-Atimalala brothers are expected to return next year.
As much talent as Campbell brings back in 2019, Johnson knows the rest of the Open Division will be stronger, too.
“It looks promising. We got some work, but it looks promising. We’ll hope that some good things happen for us,” Johnson said. “They know what it’s like. We know we got a big conference next year and Waianae’s gonna be better, Farrington’s gonna be better, everyone’s gonna be better.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us but we’re excited about what’s to come our way.”
Come 2019, Campbell will no longer be the upstarts in the Open Division. For its future seniors, it’s time to cash in.
“Next year, we’re gonna take it even more further. We’re just gonna get everyone in the weight room, everything we can to get our full potential to get ready,” Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala said. “Next year, it should be a dangerous team. Not a lot of seniors this year. We’re pretty young. We just gotta ball, that’s it.”