A shorter version of this story appears in Saturday’s Star-Advertiser
One team is seemingly omnipotent, a Galactus that consumes opposing teams, a squad with massive numbers despite a light number of games played.
The other team has learned how to survive the gauntlet and reach the semifinal round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division I State Championships despite key injuries.
It’s Punahou and Kahuku, and in a rare occasion, it will be the Red Raiders who are the underdog. No. 1-ranked Punahou (7-0) and No. 3 Kahuku (9-2) square off in the 7 p.m. semifinal at Aloha Stadium on Saturday.
“They’re good, no question about it. They’re ranked nationally on MaxPreps (No. 21) and we’re 400-something,” Raiders coach Lee Leslie said. “We’re not taking them lightly, that’s for sure.”
The Buffanblu were fairly loose, yet very focused at practice on Wednesday. They took turns kicking a soccer ball into a goal before the workout started, the whole team having a blast. Come Saturday, though, it’ll be a unique battle head of cousin versus cousin, neighbor versus neighbor for some of the Buffanblu and Red Raiders.
“The kids are focused and understanding the opportunity we have before us. It’s a coach’s dream to have everybody focused and ready,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said. “They’ll be playing friends and family in some cases. I tell them, I love to beat my friends more than anybody. We all respect each other. It’s a great opportunity to compete and there’s quality kids all over the field. They’ve grown up together. There’s a lot of connections and pride, but there’s also a lot of sensitivity for both groups. It makes for a unique competition, but something that’s really prevalent in Hawaii. We always go hard, but we go hard with respect and sensitivity.”
Punahou linebacker Saitui Moea‘i is one of six Buffanblu who reside on the North Shore. He’ll be facing his former Pop Warner (Koolauloa) and Big Boyz (Laie Park) teammates.
Ane’s team reached the state final last year, beating Mililani. His team has had more than enough time to digest what’s at stake.
“Kahuku is very physical and very proud of being physical. We expect them to run the ball and to be aggressive on defense. That’s the standard operating procedure they always do,” he said. “They’ve got great athletes, so they can try different things.”
Kahuku is dinged up after a long season. Wily-Matagi (concussion) has been missed at quarterback since getting hurt in the OIA final against Mililani. Running back Kesi Ah-Hoy has battled numerous nagging injuries over the course of the season. He, too, sat out last week in Kahuku’s 20-10 comeback victory over a tough Hilo squad.
Two scenarios are in play depending on whether Wily-Matagi gets cleared to play on Saturday. If he does play, his arm strength is a major weapon. The 6-3, 235-pound senior has no hesitation when it comes to launching bombs to Chance Maghanoy, Keala Santiago or Alohi Gilman. That threat alone can keep a defense honest, forever eliminating an eight-man box.
But even when Wily-Matagi didn’t play, backup Samuta Avea held down the fort. The 6-5, 190-pound sophomore got enough reps last week to stand more firmly in the pocket in his first start (Hilo). Kahuku went to its double-tight end, three-back sets almost exclusively after halftime with very positive results.
Wily, a 6-1, 270-pound defensive tackle, got a season-high 18 carries at tailback. He rushed for 132 of his 136 yards in the second half, and his two TDs were the thrust of the rally against a Hilo defense built to stop the run.
Kahuku shifted Siotame Uluave, cousin of Punahou’s standout offensive lineman Semisi Uluave, from left tackle to center. That coincided with Kahuku’s success on the ground. Leslie has expressed reservations about overextending his two-way Ironmen, but is leaning toward more ground-and-pound football against the formidable Buffanblu defense.
“We’re going to punch them in the mouth, Kahuku style. Then we may spread it out,” Leslie said. “If we could’ve gone power-I (formation) all year with Pena (Fitisemanu) and Sala, heck yeah. But I’m not willing to jeopardize anyone’s health for one football game. That’s why we rested Kesi.”
Ah-Hoy has rushed for a modest 462 yards (4.7 per carry) and nine TDs as a sophomore. His ability to break free out of the backfield and on returns was a energizing, promising weapon early in the year before he got hurt. Ah-Hoy (6-1, 192) played hurt for most of the 10 games before last week. The latest injury (shoulder) is still an issue.
“He may play. It’ll be a game-time decision,” Leslie said.
Wily had career highs in carries and yardage last week. The UH commit now has 496 rushing yards (7.5 per carry) amd five TDs, all the while playing full-time at DT.
The key, though, will be Wily-Matagi. Even if he plays, he probably won’t be as sharp as he was going into the Mililani game. He hasn’t taken reps at practice this week (as of Wednesday). Though his stats aren’t as eye-popping as some of the state’s top passers, his big-play ability — 8.9 yards per pass attempt and 4.7 yards per rush — is the tipping point for the Kahuku offense.
If Wily-Matagi is healthy enough to play and the Red Raiders run the ball effectively enough, that might create one-on-one opportunities against Punahou’s crafty, quick cornerbacks, Randon Oda and Dayson Watanabe.
“He gets more dangerous the deeper they go. They’ve got great athletes who can get by people and make those catches,” Ane said.
It could make the difference between seven or eight in the box for Punahou.
“They’re probably the best running team and the best O-line we’ve faced this year,” Punahou linebacker Kalama Chung said. “It’ll be like a chess match to try and get pressure. We’ll be defintely taking it like a championship game, pulling out all the stops. We trust our DBs and D-line to get some pressure. Hopefully, I can call the right plays.”
Chung is a signal-caller for an explosive defensive unit. Punahou already has a stout defensive line with Joseph Saula inside and highly-recruited 6-7, 290-pound Canton Kaumatule at end.
“Most of the freedom goes to our outside ‘backers. We’ll go over certain formations and options we can go into. Coach will let me call stunts when I see them. We’ll do what it takes to put us in the best position.”
Preparing for the possibility of Kahuku’s jumbo sets is no easy task.
“We don’t really have anybody like them. We can’t really replicate that (at practice). A 160-pound guy can’t really be a guy who’s 270,” Chung said. “Timing is going to be huge with (Wily). You can’t just stand there and wait for him.”
“You’ve got to drive and stay on your feet or you’ll end up on your back,” he said. “We used to play rugby together on our breaks and he can run just like his brother.”
The other huge challenge will be on Kahuku’s defense, going up against the most balanced and explosive offense in the ILH. Punahou quarterback Ephraim Tuliloa has thrown for 284.3 yards per game with 18 TDs and only two picks. He has an almost inhuman passer rating of 207.38. The junior has also run for 81 yards and a TD.
Running back Wayne Taulapapa and wide receiver Kanawai Noa have also been elite all season. Taulapapa has rushed for 846 yards (10.4 per carry) and 17 TDs along with 11 receptions for 88 yards. Noa has 44 catches of 963 yards and nine TDs. His ability to make big catches for first downs is key, but his deep-ball threat has been a constant. Noa has also run back two punts for touchdowns.
Taulapapa will face a Red Raiders defense than has permitted less than 2 rushing yards per carry this season. Opposing offenses have rushed for 721 yards on 366 carries against Kahuku.
If Kahuku can somehow slow Taulapapa, who runs behind a group of blocking masters up front led by Semisi Uluave (6-6, 315), that takes pressure off the secondary. Punahou’s hybrid offense is designed, it seems, to set up the big play downfield, though Tuliloa is quite patient about it. If Kahuku has to commit to stopping Taulapapa and his astounding 10-yards-per-carry production, that leaves Noa and Micah Ma‘a (17 receptions, 337 yards, five TDs) in a lot of single coverage situations.
With superb coverage defenders Santiago and Gilman in the secondary, that may be a risk Kahuku is willing to live with. The versatility of Mactiag (6-0, 205), who can drop into coverage, and rangy Hirkley Latu (6-3, 200) are wild cards for the unit.
Kahuku hasn’t scored on special teams — or defense — for several weeks, but Gilman and Santiago could prove to be factors there. Kahuku scored eight TDs on interceptions or kick returns in its first four games.
As of Wednesday, Punahou’s versatile slotback/running back, Heisman Hosoda, is iffy at best for the game. Hosoda (411 yards, five TDs from scrimmage) suffered ankle and knee injuries in the ILH playoff win over Saint Louis on Oct. 25.