The typical Hawaii high school football fan is thinking No. 2 Mililani (11-0) and No. 1 Punahou (7-0) are on a collision course for the state Division I championship.
But fans of No. 3 Kahuku (9-2) are not your typical fans, and the Red Raiders players are equipped with more than your average heart.
This tight-knit North Shore community loves its Kahuku football, and the sentiment emanating from the practice field on Thursday for Saturday’s game can be summed up in two words: Beat Punahou.
But how can a team that struggled to defeat Hilo in the opening round of the state tournament expect to get past the state’s top-ranked team, one that is No. 14 in the MaxPreps Freeman national rankings?
It’s a good question, and the answer will not be vocalized. It will come on the field Saturday in the state semifinals against the Buffanblu at Aloha Stadium.
Heart might have something to do with the eventual answer. The Red Raiders (9-2) trailed Hilo 10-0 late in the third quarter of an eventual 20-10 win. If their heart hadn’t been in it, they would have certainly succumbed.
And just because the real answer will come on the field Saturday — win or lose — Kahuku coaches and players aren’t shy about talking about the task at hand.
“Our starting defensive personnel can stay with anybody,” coach Lee Leslie said. “We are loaded on defense. As a team, we’ve stepped up and found a way and here we are in the state semifinals.
“The kids are dialed in. They know what the expectations are from the community. They want to answer that bell.”
Leslie, whose expertise is on offense, knows his team has struggled on that side of the ball. But he said the Red Raiders have made do.
“When we move guys from our defense, like Salanoa-Alo (Wily) and Pena (Fitisemanu), to offense, it makes a crack in the defense. Same thing with Alohi (Gilman) and Keala (Santiago), more cracks.”
And so that’s the reason those players mentioned above and some others from the defensive unit see only spot duty on offense.
“This is a big game for us … to be able to challenge Punahou, the No. 1 team,” Santiago said. “Our defense has to hold and our offense has to step up. And our special teams have to give us good field position.”
Santiago is a threat as a kick returner and a receiver in addition to his duties as a defensive back.
Gilman is also a DB/receiver/returner.
“They’re (the Buffanblu) state champs, so this is a big opportunity for us,” he said. “I know a lot of those guys who are from here. They live right down the road. We are confident. We had a really good week of practice. The coaches don’t have to get us up for this game.”
Among others, Punahou starting quarterback Ephraim Tuliloa and running back Wayne Taulapapa are from the North Shore.
Several Red Raiders said they saw Tuliloa’s dad watching Kahuku’s practice from his parked car the last two days.
He may have been checking to see if quarterback Tuli Wily-Matagi was back at practice after sitting out the Hilo game and most of the OIA title game against Mililani with a concussion. Wily-Matagi has recovered, has been practicing and will play Saturday.
Keeping Kahuku area players playing for the Red Raiders in the future is a big part of what Leslie wants to accomplish.
“I’ve heard of the saying ‘Red Raider for life,’ ” he said. “The saying is not ‘Red Raider for life until you get a better opportunity.’ ”
Leslie is wary of Punahou’s defense, which he called “dominating.”
Asked if the Red Raiders would have an answer for prolific Buffanblu wide receiver Kanawai Noa, Leslie said, “He’s a great player, but so was No. 19 for Mililani (running back Vavae Malepeai, who Kahuku held in check). We have a defense with swagger and I feel confident.
“When our offense picks it up, that could be the payoff.”
The Red Raiders are an underdog against Punahou, and if they can get past the Buffanblu, they’ll face either Mililani or Farrington the following week for the state title.
Getting this far is not bad for Leslie, who is in his first year as coach of the Red Raiders after coaching last year at Kuna High School in Idaho.
For the Kahuku faithful, getting to the title game and winning it would change the “Not bad” to “Now, that’s what we’re talking about.”