Baldwin’s hearty core of seniors did all it could against Leilehua’s ground-and-pound attack.
The Bears trailed 14-7 at the half, but Leilehua was determined to go with blows to the solar plexus of Baldwin’s gritty defense. By the end, Leilehua had a 34-7 win in the first round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division I State Championships. Leilehua (10-2), the OIA runner-up, will travel again to meet Hilo next weekend.
Jemell Vereen made the most of his 28 carries, running efficiently between the tackles for 174 yards and one touchdown. Vereen began the season on the JV squad, and was promoted in the middle of the regular season. His explosiveness and ability to power through the smallest holes are rare enough. Vereen often gets chunk yardage after contact.
“When I was back in North Carolina, my dad used to teach me drills on footwork. When I got to Leilehua in the summer, the coaches made it even better. That’s where I got it from,” the 5-foot-11, 180-pound sophomore said.
He named his entire offensive line from left to right. Those trenchmen are the most underrated group on the team, Mules coach Mark Kurisu said. Vereen might agree.
“I think (Baldwin) stacked the box, but we picked up the right blocks to give me open holes, and the receivers blocked the linebackers so I could get free a little bit,” Vereen said.
Kalei Akagi, the Swiss Army knife of the Mules offense, saw a few snaps at quarterback. He was especially effective, though, on well-orchestrated big plays. On the first snap from scrimmage, he exploded around left end on a reverse for a 72-yard TD.
“During film sessions, Coach ‘Drew (Andrew Manley) said the ’backers fly around, they blitz super hard, so all our stuff will work,” Akagi said.
With the Mules offense struggling to finish drives, Akagi came up with his next big score, a 91-yard kick return to pay dirt after Baldwin had tied the game at 7.
“We had a wall set to the left side. It was kind of a squib kick so it rolled down the the 9-yard line. I just grabbed it, I saw a hole up the middle so I took it and ran, used my speed to the outside,” he said.
Kurisu is still and probably will always be a stickler for defensive execution. He puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Leilehua’s offensive line, however. They keep coming through.
“Our (O-line) coach, Wayne Thompson, is always on them. Coach ‘Drew. These guys are on them like crazy. Any false step, any lack of effort, they’re on them. So these guys get it the most, but they get the most from us,” Kurisu said. “They may not get outside recognition, but from us, our staff, we make sure that we honor them and respect them. We buy them plate lunches, doughnuts and stuff. That’s just because they deserve it. It’s a thankless job, but these guys do it well.”
Next up, Leilehua will meet the Vikings next Saturday at Dr. Francis Wong Stadium. Monday’s film session will be crucial. Hilo is a mystery for some of the Mules.
“Uhh, I haven’t watched Hilo yet,” Vereen said.