New Kahuku head football coach Lee Leslie will be the first to admit that he is still learning about the culture of the community around Kahuku.
His boys gave him one of his first lessons during Friday’s Red and White game to wrap up spring practice. Defense rules.
“I thought the kids showed a lot of courage today,” Leslie said. “There is a lot of offense I have yet to put in and I know it is Kahuku and we can run the ball like crazy but I want to make sure we have as many options as we can if we need them. Everything we do is going to prepare us for that last championship game of the year.”
Tuli Wily-Matagi is back under center for the Red Raiders, hoping to cap his junior year with a state title. All he has to do, according to Kahuku tradition, is make enough plays to allow the defense to collect wins. It’s early, but it looked like much the same old Kahuku on Friday with balls in the air followed by balls on the ground.
Defense is always ahead of offense this early, especially with a coach bringing in a new system, but Kahuku has always been about working on throwing until the games start to count and then ramming the ball down opponents’ throats.
Wily-Matagi led one of his three drives down the field for a touchdown but was picked off twice. He had almost no time to throw, as Kahuku’s defensive line destroyed the O-line time after time. Leslie spent his time in the offensive huddle during the scrimmage, trying to explain to his boys how to give Wily-Matagi more than 2 seconds to deliver the ball. It didn’t work.
Salanoa Wily had the only score for the offense, plunging in from the 3-yard line on a rare fifth down after the defense stoned the offense on four tries from inside the 10. Kahuku rarely ran the ball until it got into the red zone.
Leslie moved to Kahuku from Idaho, where he coached at Kuna. He will return to his old school to attend graduation this week, then set up shop on the North shore for good. Like anyone who has been touched by Hawaii, he will return with a smile on his face.
The coach addressed the crowd after Friday’s scrimmage, and it took the former motivational speaker only 5 minutes to lose it.
“I really love this place,” Leslie told the crowd before pausing for 8 seconds to choke back tears and regain his composure. “I have already come to love your kids.”
He paused for another 8 seconds before apologizing.
“I’m sorry I am soft right now,” he said. “This place does something to me. It is an amazing place, there is a spirit here that I have never felt anywhere else and I am grateful to be here.”
Leslie has already begun work on the locker room, planning a paint job that honors the school’s state championships and each of its first-team all state selections. His team will not touch the field until the fall while it is reseeded and he called on volunteers to meet him at the school on three Saturdays over the summer to clean the place up. Under Armor already has new jerseys, among other swag, on the way.
Reggie Torres, who played at the school but was dumped from the job to make room for Leslie, will certainly have his space on the wall of fame.
“I have the upmost respect for coach Torres,” Leslie said. “I know he is in a tough spot and anytime his name comes up in my room it will be positive and I hope he always feels welcome. I hope maybe someday we can work together, this is just a tough time and I hope someday we can punch through that and he can have his dreams end the way he wants them.”
Torres moved on to Punahou, where he is serving as the offensive line coach for one of Kahuku’s biggest rivals. When Torres left it raised doubt about Leslie’s ability to hire enough coaches to fill out a staff from 5,000 miles away, but the new coach got it done. He brought in Tommy Heffernan to help out and recently elevated former Kahuku standout James Kammerer, who coached the JV last year, to assistant head coach.
Other coaches listed on the roster are Vai Natoa, Sterling Carvalho, Keala Santiago, Nihoa Pule, Dave Vimahi, Sola Solia, Alema Atuaia, Salesa Maiava, Molia Salanoa and Aofaga Wily. Junior Ah You is listed on the team’s “executive board,” and Leslie says that having people who understand Kahuku back in the fold is invaluable from coaches to players.
Parents had no questions after Leslie’s speech, but more than one cried out for the haka. Leslie said that they have practiced it and will do it before every game, but it has to be perfect and the kids aren’t quite ready yet.
“What I want to do more than anything else here is keep Kahuku boys,” Leslie said. “I don’t need anybody to move in, I don’t need to recruit the best kid from five other high schools, we just want the kids from this area. We want to keep our kids here, and we want to make sure they get the best education they can.”
Leslie said that 29 college coaches have been on campus the last two weeks and Arizona State had a coach on the sidelines on Friday.