Three weeks ago, the Castle Knights were winless and dealing with a video that had surfaced on social media showing players running full sprint at each other from 20 yards away putting vicious hits on their teammates.
Second-year coach John Hao referred all media inquiries on the matter to the Department of Education, but it was the lowest point of the season for a Castle team that was 0-4 for the first time since 2012.
Just a short time later — 21 days to be exact — the Knights are on the verge of clinching a top-four finish and a playoff berth in OIA Division I.
Senior Senituli Punivai, who earlier this season had three touchdowns and three interceptions in one half against Moanalua, has taken over at quarterback and helped the Knights beat Nanakuli, Radford and Kailua in consecutive weeks to move to 3-3 in OIA play.
A win on Saturday at Aiea would push the Knights to a 4-3 mark. Games left against ‘Iolani and Damien won’t count in the OIA standings, and a Moanalua win over Radford on Friday would mean a victory Saturday against Na Alii would put the Knights in the playoffs with Na Menehune, Waipahu and the Mules.
Punivai has made the Castle offense formidable over the last three weeks at quarterback, throwing five touchdown passes and rushing for five more scores in the three wins.
He has rushed for at least 150 yards in all three games — including a 233-yard performance Friday against Kailua.
“We got a guy who’s willing to make plays on offense as the quarterback,” Hao told Hawaii Prep World’s Brian McInnis after a win over Radford. “Tuli has done a great job of just leading (with) what we’ve been missing forever. He’s making throws when we’ve been asking for them. Guys who’ve been catching it have been open. So, as long as our offense can move the chains and score, it helps our defense out.”
Hao went into greater detail after the win over the Surfriders in which the Knights put up 38 points and Punivai finished with the second-most rushing yards in a single game in school history.
“It’s actually a hybrid,” Hao told McInnis of the offense. “It is my pass spread. So what we’ve been doing for the last couple weeks is, because he’s not a true quarterback, they’ll line up, I make the read on the defense, and I’ll call the play. So if they bring six or seven in the box, I’m throwing it outside, because Tuli can throw. … He proved that last week (four passing TDs in a 45-33 win over Radford). If you keep five or six in the box, I got a running back to block, I’ll put that running back on a defensive end or linebacker, and run the ball. Tuli makes good decisions finding the holes.”
Hao has had to develop the offense on the fly. The only bye week the Knights have had was due to the possible hurricane, but teams didn’t get to practice.
Because the OIA schedules in each Division involve games against ILH teams that do not count in the standings, some teams have played as many as six league games and others have played only four.
A Na Alii win over the Knights on Saturday would put Aiea in position to clinch the final playoff berth in OIA Division I with a win over Kailua the following week.
Na Alii is still in the hunt despite suiting up less than 30 players most of the season.
“We tell the kids that they have to believe,” Aiea coach Wendell Say told Hawaii Prep World’s Jeremy Nitta on Friday.. “They have to believe they’re good enough, because in this league, anyone can beat anyone.”
In the Open Division, Farrington needs a win over Waianae on Saturday to stay in the running for the playoffs with the four teams ahead of the Govs in the standings.
In Division II, the Chargers have locked up a playoff berth with Kaimuki and Roosevelt right behind. Kaiser, at 3-2 and owning a win over Kalaheo (2-3), is the likely fourth team in and can clinch it with a victory over McKinley on Oct. 12, or sooner if other teams lose.