Castle’s game plan was evident from the first moments of Saturday night’s 28-14 upset of No. 7 Moanalua in the OIA Division I semifinals.
They made it clear they were going to be coming straight at Na Menehune, trying to make it a game of power instead of the finesse that Moanalua has been winning with.
It worked brilliantly. Moanalua fumbled the opening kickoff and the Knights’ Justice Ching was on it like a fly on food. That led to Cheyden Costa‘a 21-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
But the real trick for Castle would be how it could do against Moanalua quarterback Nick Au, who was coming off a seven-TD performance against Nanakuli. Well, they got right to it. On Au’s first completion, receiver Drayden Von Oelhoffen was dropped for a 2-yard loss by Nakoa Gaspar-Takahashi.
And then on third down, Au threw an incomplete pass. He was in a rush to get it off due to the intense heat of the Knights’ David Keanu and Chaz Ciacci, who were coming in like gangbusters. That relentless pass rush continued all night, and Au threw for just 162 yards and a TD before going down to an injury on a late hit out of bounds in the fourth quarter.
On offense, Castle got it done with the elephant-package running of quarterback Senituli Punivai and also handoffs to Keanu Tilton — mostly up the middle. With a hulking line in front, the plan was to keep the chains moving, which they did.
What wasn’t fully expected, however, was that Punivai would go off for 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns. That made the ultimate difference. He was tireless. His 47-yard TD gave Moanalua a 21-7 cushion, but after Moanalua pulled back to within seven at 21-14 with 6:05 remaining, he led an 80-yard drive by running for 62 of those yards on 10 carries. It took 4:25 off the clock, leaving 1:40 to go, and it basically took Na Mehehune out of the game.
“He’s special,” Castle coach John Hao said. “Bottom line is we’re putting the ball in our best player’s hands. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last seven games.”
The Knights (5-6) move on to the OIA D-I championship game next week against Waipahu after starting the year 0-4.
The low-scoring first half was a solid indication that the game was going Castle’s way. Costa kicked field goals of 21 and 39 yards and Castle also scored a safety when Moanalua was called for holding in its own end zone. It was a precarious 8-7 lead, though, and still very much anybody’s game.
Punivai tilted things Castle’s way a bit more, capping a long drive early in the second half to make it 14-7. At that point, it was apparent that if Moanalua had an answer for him, they probably would have shown it already. Still, Na Mehehune were well within striking distance.
“Our O-line was feisty all week and that’s why I had a feeling the elephant package may work,” Hao said.
Seeded fourth, the smart talk on the street was that the Knights had little chance against undefeated and seventh-ranked Na Menehune, whose season is suddenly done at 8-1.
“This is a big-time (upset),” Hao said. “Nobody expected this. But our Castle kids wanted it. They knew what they were going to accomplish and they did it today.”
Added Knights running back Keanu Tilton, who was also a workhorse with 57 yards rushing on 15 carries, “During the whole week, coaches told us that this could be our last week. We pushed hard the whole week and wanted badly to come out with the ‘W.’ ”
Aside from his fumble recovery, Castle’s Ching also had an interception. Defensive end Raiden Wong and Keanu, a defensive tackle, were in on three sacks each for the Knights, who had seven total sacks.
“This is like the highest achievement we could get aside from the championship, rallying to beat a team that beat us (40-36) earlier in the season,” Wong said. “We balled out together as brothers.”