They’re grinders, this year’s Kahuku Red Raiders.
Through any challenge or adversity, they simply keep moving forward. With the OIA Division I championship game just two days away, they practiced in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. The usual 7 p.m. practice on Wednesdays was moved up to 4 p.m., so they started the workout sharing Carleton Weimer Field with the girls soccer team.
Grade checks had been a pressing concern for first-year coach Lee Leslie. One starter will be out for the next two weeks.
“They had 16 guys out last year,” he said.
Line play is crucial at this time of year, especially against a second-ranked Mililani squad that Leslie considers No. 1 in the state. Mililani has muscle inside with defensive tackle Rex Manu, and a blazing-fast pass rusher in defensive end Kaimana Padello.
“Speed. They’ve got speed,” said right tackle Siotame Uluave, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound right tackle. “We’re preparing for anything, putting the pieces together.”
Left tackle Bradlee Anae, a 6-2, 220-pound left tackle, was blunt.
“Smash ’em. Smash ’em ’til they can’t go any more. We’re ready for that,” he said.
Kahuku’s determination is less about cockiness and more about recognition. After going 8-1, the Red Raiders are a decided underdog against the unbeaten Trojans (9-0).
“Mililani’s the hottest team right now in the state. This is the most important game of the year,” Leslie said. “It’s the OIA championship and I have a lot of respect for all the public schools. (A win) buys you a bye for the state tournament. That’s huge.”
A midseason loss at Kaiser, featuring seven Kahuku turnovers, did more good than harm.
“That was a wake-up call for us,” defensive tackle Salanoa-Alo Wily said.
“That was only one game we struggled, we turned the ball over and we got beat (defensively), which we never do, and we lost by one point,” Leslie said. “Practice has gone well, we’ve gotten better every week. I’ve seen a lot of improvement from a 6-5 team last year, the kids stand by each other.”
Leslie said that he’s never seen a team as driven and as well conditioned as these Red Raiders.
“Going back to 1985 when I was a head coach and we lost a championship game, defense wins championships. We’ve got nine blue-chip players. I’ve got eight of them on defense. We pull them over (to offense) when we can, but we’ve got other kids progressing. We’re being as patient as we can and see how fast they get up there,” he said.
One of the questions for Friday’s game is how much Kahuku can maximize the tools and talent of two-way players like defensive backs Alohi Gilman and Keala Santiago, who get snaps at wide receiver. They both had key plays on both sides of the ball in the 21-14 semifinal win over Farrington.
“I feel like these kids are capable of doing everything, but how much do I pull them out of defense to play offense and have problems,” Leslie said. “When Salanoa is giving everything he has on defense, if he carries three times on offense consecutively, there’s a fumble coming because he’s tired. But other guys are stepping up and I can’t wait for us to play.”
Leslie noted the play of linebacker Pua Falemalu, who is back from a concussion. Soli Afalava is finally getting back to his old self after battling with a high-ankle sprain for much of the season.
“We’re going to be solid. There’s no question about that. We’re going to give them a game,” Leslie said.
They’ve got enough weaponry defensively, and though the offense has struggled at times to run the ball, playmakers like sophomore running back Kesi Ah-Hoy are capable of big performances. In the end, it’s about Kahuku’s ability to move the chains against a sturdy Mililani defense that has racked up 22 interceptions.
“I’m looking for Tuli to continue to improve in the decisions he makes when he goes through progressions,” Leslie said of his quarterback.
He’s seen enough of Mililani’s gunslinger, McKenzie Milton, and the rest of the Trojans.
“Mililani plays hard on both sides of the ball. I could not be more impressed. I’m glad we’re playing them. I respect them. I love that quarterback, being a quarterback myself. I love the way he plays, the spirit he has. He’s got it down,” Leslie said. “To me, we’re playing the No. 1 team in the state.”