A shorter version of this story appears in Saturday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser
In all these years that Lahainaluna has hoisted up tremendous football teams, the reality has been that the Lunas have often been classic overachievers.
There have been seasons when the Lunas won the Maui Interscholastic League outright, before the state-tournament, classification era. This is another of those years. The Lunas, under veteran coaches Garrett Tihada and Bobby Watson, went unbeaten in the MIL, defeating Division I champ Maui 14-0.
After edging eventual KIF champion Kapaa 18-16 in Lihue, Lahainaluna went 8-0 through the MIL, beating every team but Maui by at least 21 points. Only one team, Kamehameha-Maui, managed to score more than 7 points on the pride of West Maui.
Up against this powerhouse, the No. 1 seed in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division II State Championships, comes a team from the great unknown. Hardly any coaches and players across the islands have seen Kamehameha-Hawaii play in person. In fact, though, the Warriors are now known as the team that ousted OIA D-II champion Nanakuli 42-20 on Saturday.
“Lahainaluna has done very well at states,” KS-Hawaii coach Dan Lyons said.
The Lunas (9-0) will host KS-Hawaii (8-2) on Saturday night at War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku. Just about everyone except perhaps Tihada is convinced the Lunas deserve the top seed.
“I don’t know if we got better (this year). We had a little bit more weapons last year, but we ran into Kaiser. More than ever, we’ve got to play team ball,” he said. “The Big Island (Kamehameha) might have more athletes across the board. They’re definitely bigger with a very good defense. The size and speed of their defense caught my eye.”
Tihada does like his defense.
“I think we’re just as good as last year,” he said of the unit. “Hopefully, we peak during the (state) playoffs and do some damage.”
For Lahainaluna, the only D-II team in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 (at No. 8), it’s always been about discipline, teamwork and a highly successful single-wing hybrid offense. The attack has evolved over the years, adding a shotgun in recent years, but the same misdirection action with a jet sweep has always confounded defenses, and no team has run it as well over such a longer period of time. And yet, the Lunas haven’t tasted a state championship.
Now it’s KS-Hawaii, a team that has thrown the ball as many as 49 times in a game this fall. The Warriors won’t be intimidated by the Lunas’ proud history, nor the discomfort of traveling off island for the first time this year.
“I actually felt like if we could get off our island, we could make some noise,” Lyons said. “What we do translates better on Oahu.”
Well, the Warriors haven’t made it quite to Honolulu. But the point is true: on the Big Island, ground-and-pound is the modus operandi for most teams, which makes KS-Hawaii a counterintuitive program in theory.
But many of the best BIIF teams of years past had balanced offenses. Micah Kanehailua was on fire at all the right times against Nanakuli with three TD passes, including two to Bayley Manliguis. The senior has passed for 1,918 yards and 25 TDs with just nine picks. Kaeo Batacan has been consistent on the ground (676 yards, eight TDs) and Manliguis (43 catches, 595 yards, eight TDs) leads the receiving corps.
The Warriors did it against an integrated BIIF schedule; the Warriors nearly upset eventual D-I league champ Hilo, losing 27-20.
“Our schedule here was an advantage over Nanakuli,” Lyons said. “Konawaena’s been pretty good the last few years in D-II, then very competitive at the state level. We got to play Hilo, Waiakea, a lot of good teams. Not to say Pearl City isn’t good, but we should’ve beaten Hilo, a team that gave Kahuku a hard time.”
The big test when the lights at War Memorial Stadium shine on Saturday will be the Warrior defense against Lahainaluna’s mesmerizing, souped-up, old-school-offense.
Pono Davis continues to be a stellar two-way lineman. Cornerbacks Preston Kalai (6-1, 185) and Alapaki Iaea (6-1, 185) were terrific during the regular season. Iaea left the Nanakuli game early after dislocating a finger — he later got the webbing between two fingers stitched up — but Kalai did a yeoman’s job on Nanakuli’s big, deep-threat receiver, Keanu Momoa.
“Kalai was the guy responsible for No. 7 and he did a heck of a job,” Lyons said.
Lyons expects to use Kalai much more on offense since Iaea’s hand will limit him to defensive duties. There really is no way, though, to truly replicate Lahainaluna’s offense at practice. Containing the likes of Lunas QB Sione Filikitonga-Lukela and RB Jared Rocha-Islas is never easy.
Filikitonga-Lukela’s mastery of the offense was so pronounced two years ago as a sophomore, he was called up from the JV and started at the state tourney.
Rocha-Islas was the sparkplug last year, and after he got hurt during the state tourney, Lahainaluna’s offense was never the same.
Stats do the Lunas no justice just by the nature of their unpredictable offense. Filikitonga-Lukela has thrown the ball just 99 times for 639 yards, but he is a low-risk aerial artist at a 55-percent completion rate with 13 TDs and just two interceptions.
Rocha-Islas, though, is a question mark, according to Tihada. Filikitonga-Lukela led the Lunas in rushing (608 yards, 11 TDs, 6.3 yards per carry), ahead of the oft-injured Rocha-Islas (597 yards, eight TDs, 7.4 per carry).
“Sione’s throwing the ball better (this season), making a lot of good decisions. He’s done a really, really good job of managing the game,” Tihada said. “Jared’s been injured, maybe finished two games the whole year. His carries were really down this year. We tried as much as possible to get him the ball. He’s still explosive, but a little dinged up.”
Conor Mowat (6-0, 270) is an Ironman for the offensive and defensive lines. Defensively, tackle Peni Taufa (6-3, 245) and safety Scott Isaac Medeiros-Tangatailoa (5-11, 180) anchor the unit.
Linebacker/offensive lineman Brandon Kaina (5-11, 220) is another key cog.
One season after the graduation of standout defensive lineman Hercules Mataafa, the Lunas have allowed just 17 points in their last six games, including three shutouts.
KS-Hawaii’s offensive line, the heart of an offense that has scored more than 35 points per game, is led by right guard Russel Montibon (6-3, 250). He is flanked by Davis (6-1, 265) at left tackle, LG Kanaiela Decoito (6-2, 250), C Joyden Madriaga (5-10, 250) and RT Icher Pule-Annes (6-2, 235).