It took a little while, but Castle is set at quarterback.
The Knights, who lost their first four games of the season — including three in OIA Division I play — have new life behind the new guy taking snaps. With running back Senituli “Tuli” Punivai converted to quarterback, Castle has wins over Nanakuli (22-9) last week and Radford (45-33) Friday night.
The 45 points the Knights (2-4, 2-3 OIA Division I) hung on the Rams were their most since a 49-35 outburst at Nanakuli last September, when Jaylen Uyemura-Lee was at the controls.
But Punivai, a 5-foot-11 senior who’s also played cornerback, was a very potent dual threat for coach John Hao, as he showed his propensity to run (26 carries, 151 yards, TD) with a largely untapped ability to throw (8-for-14, 182 yards, four TDs, INT) on homecoming night against Radford.
The 151 rushing yards were good for 10th place on Castle’s all-time list.
“I feel a little bit better that our team is actually playing together now. We got a guy who’s willing to make plays on offense as the quarterback,” Hao said postgame on Friday. “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. Our defense plays hard no matter what. Our offense does too, we’ve just been slacking in one area, which is our quarterback.
“The last two games, Tuli has put up some numbers that should be ridiculous. I don’t even know what he had today.”
Hao was told his stat line.
He said, “Holy smokes. Outrageous numbers. He’s done a great job.”
Punivai’s mobility gave him all sorts of options. He reversed field as he retreated from Rams blitzes or a collapsed pocket several times, sometimes multiple times on the same play. He was brought down for a loss five times, but as many times or more he got back to the line of scrimmage and made something happen either with his leg or his arm.
Hao prefers pocket passers in the mold of the June Jones run-and-shoot. He had experimented with three others this season: Kanaipono Kahala-Giron, Samuel Judd, and Austyn Acosta. A combination of injuries and circumstance led him to Punivai.
“The last four weeks, we’ve been finding that guy,” Hao said. “I think the guys we had before, they try hard, they did their best. Our O-line hasn’t been blocking perfectly for them, so it’s always been in the scramble mode. Pocket passers, if you don’t run out and get in the open field, it’s going to be tough to get the ball out. And Tuli is somebody that, is a running back that knows how to throw a ball. So, it makes it easier for us. We’ve got our O-line not sustaining all the blocks.”
Hao compared his skill set to Kesi Ah Hoy, whom he coached at Kahuku. Ah Hoy was a defensive star but played quarterback his junior season.
“He knew how to throw a ball, but he’s a running back,” Hao said. “That’s the best thing you can ask for; somebody just to make plays.”
Jonah Figueroa led the Knights’ receiving corps with five grabs for 115 yards, including in-stride grabs of 57 and 41 yards from Punivai. Raiden Wong had a 20-yard TD haul and Paul Omengebar had the game-icing catch from 34 yards with 1:41 to play.
Figueroa said of Punivai, “I think getting out of that pocket was excellent. On the run, and when he had to run, he did it, and gained yards. So yeah, he did good today.”
Radford (1-5, 1-3) flexed its offensive might in its own right, as the second of the Rams’ two quarterbacks to get in the game, Hunter Copp, led the Rams’ comeback bid that fell a little bit short. Copp threw for 304 yards on 22-for-40 accuracy with two touchdowns and a pick, plus a 1-yard sneak TD that got Radford within 38-33 late.
Defensively, Braxton Wilcox had the play of the game for Castle, with a forced fumble strip and recovery in one swift motion from Rams running back Kendall Saxtonin the fourth quarter.
Castle hosts Windward Side rival Kailua next week as the Knights look to make it three straight and contend for one of four OIA D-I playoff berths.