LAHAINA >> It’s a gem of a view from “The Imu,” looking down Maui’s western flank out at Lanai and Kahoolawe from on high. And it’s a diamond that Lahainaluna seeks to add to its already studded championship crown a week from now.
Even when it plays “sloppy” on offense, as coach Garret Tihada described it on Saturday night, the host Lunas showed why they are still the team to beat for anyone in Division II.
Kapaa, Saturday’s other First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA D-II semifinal winner, is the only team that can prevent a Lunas three-peat now, after the MIL champs demolished their OIA counterpart Roosevelt 48-10 thanks to sublime play on defense and special teams.
Lahainaluna has won 20 straight games going back to a pre-conference loss to Kamehameha in 2017. One of those victories was a 30-10 win over Kapaa of the KIL this preseason. The Lunas take a six-game streak in state tourney games into the rematch at Aloha Stadium next Saturday.
“They’re big, physical, great athletes, well coached,” Tihada said. “They almost kind of remind us of ourselves. It was a battle the first game and I expect nothing less in this championship game.”
The unbeaten top seed had three weeks to rest and prepare for Roosevelt, and it showed on those two phases of the game. Not so much in their multiple sets on offense, at least in the first half, when the Lunas lost three fumbles.
But special teams … wow. Kamalei Watson got things started with an 87-yard touchdown return, weaving up the middle and catching some great blocks (a recurring theme of the night, that) to emphatically answer Roosevelt’s 3-0 lead gifted from one of the lost fumbles.
“We just did what we usually do, which is sustain all our blocks,” Watson said. “(I) took it up the middle. As I was going, I saw that it was open, so I took the chance.”
Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales followed that up with a blocked punt, setting up Derek Perez’s 3-yard touchdown run.
And Tre Rickard closed the deal with return touchdowns, of 48 and 54 yards, on consecutive Roosevelt punts in the fourth quarter.
Lahainaluna became the first team in state tournament history, of any level or division, to record multiple special teams TDs in a game. And they got three of them. Rickard became the first state player with two special teams TDs individually.
“Anytime you can get defensive or special teams points, it’s huge,” Tihada said. “It changes the game a lot. Just like it did tonight. I cannot even put words to describe how important it was for us tonight to get those special teams points.”
Defensively, they were as sound as you’d expect from a team averaging under four points per game allowed on the year. Roosevelt was held to 181 yards of offense, and it felt like fewer. Sky Ogata was picked off twice, by two Rickards, Tre and Brysen. The Lunas laid the wood on Roosevelt ball-carriers on several occasions.
“That’s exactly what they’ve done all season long,” Tihada said. “Just put pressure. Those three guys up front just puts pressure on any offense that we’ve faced this year. There was no difference, they did the same tonight.”
Offensively, things gradually picked up for the Lunas. Joshua Tihada had a 46-yard scamper set up by a gaping left-side hole from the O-line, bringing him within one of matching the state tournament TD record.
And receiver Kaihulali Casco had two impressive grabs on jump balls that went for touchdowns when he outdid the Roosevelt defensive backs and burst down the right sideline in the second and third quarters, for 72 and 39 yards, respectively.
The Lunas enjoyed a packed, enthusiastic crowd at a field that was recently singed by a fire that occurred during Hurricane Lane. Part of the rubber track surrounding the field was burned black.
Otherwise, it was hard to picture that amid the raucous atmosphere Saturday that was a capstone to a 10-0 season on the Valley Isle.
“The community, it’s a blessing for them to come out and support us every way,” Casco said. “Their support, honestly it pushes us to play better.”