Up until Friday night, it had been all practices and scrimmages for the 2016 Kahuku football team.
The Red Raiders didn’t play in the first week of the season last weekend, so lots of Hawaii fans were itching to see what this team has going for it this time around. The last time they hit the field, it was for the state championship to wrap up an undefeated season in Vavae Tata‘s first season as the head coach last November.
Yes, Kahuku got past Leilehua by a comfortable 49-15 margin in Wahiawa on Friday, but it never felt like the Red Raiders were blowing their opponents off the field. As a matter of fact, Leilehua got to within seven points, 14-7, with 5:36 left before halftime.
Defensively, Kahuku struggled at times against the Mules (0-2), who moved the chains on the accurate arm of Kona Andres. Believe it or not, the 15 points Kahuku gave up are the most against a Tata-led Red Raiders team. The most points allowed in the 13 games in 2015 was 14 in the state final victory over Saint Louis.
“We have a lot of young guys trying to get accustomed to the schemes,” Tata said after Friday’s win.
Added cornerback Stokes Botelho: “Our goal as a whole is to come out with a goose egg every week, give the other team zero points, so after (the game against Leilehua) we gotta come back next week and work hard and pick it up. Everybody’s just gotta do their part and we’ll be good.”
Kesi Ah-Hoy, who played safety and receiver for the Red Raiders, said nerves were the cause of the relatively slow start and that the team picked up steam as the game went on.
Botelho came up huge twice on kickoff returns. Both were up the middle and both were behind a wall of three blockers. The first one was a 71-yarder that set up Harmon Brown’s 11-yard touchdown to steal the momentum away from Leilehua and make the score 21-7.
Botelho took it to the house for a 94-yard kickoff return later in the game and said afterward that instead of peeling off at the end like he did the first time, he stayed right behind his blockers. Botelho also kicked seven extra points.
Earlier, Tema Lindsay forced a Mules fumble that led to Ah-Hoy’s 82-yard return for a touchdown for 14-0 edge.
Ah-Hoy was galloping all night. He caught three passes for 36 yards and had a 40-yard punt return. A year ago, Ah-Hoy played quarterback out of the elephant package and it was mostly steaming fairly straight ahead. On Friday, Ah-Hoy had the twinkle toes working, putting on the side-step moves to elude tacklers.
“In the elephant, you just gotta go,” he said. “In the spread offense (or punt returns), you have a little bit of room to make moves, so I just wanted to display that.”
Ah-Hoy made a big play in the end zone against Leilehua receiver Charles Watson, who had beaten cornerback Kekaula Kaniho by a step and had the ball for a split second before Ah-Hoy gave him a hit that knocked the ball out. It didn’t stop Leilehua this time, though. The Mules scored on the same drive a little later for that 14-7 count.
Going into the game, there was no lock on how Kahuku (1-0) would come out on offense, and there will probably be no lock on that as the weeks go by.
“We want to be multi,” Tata said.
The Red Raiders had four basic looks on offense — one with freshman Sol-Jay Maiava at the controls of a wide-open attack, one with Cameron Renaud as the quarterback of a traditional-look attack, one with Harmon Brown as the quarterback taking shotgun snaps and following the whole team in between the right and left tackles, and one with Royce Pao doing the same as Brown. Brown and Pao are doing what Ah-Hoy did much of the latter part of last season.
Maiava, who already has an offer to Michigan, threw for 108 yards in his first high school start, including his first touchdown pass, a 23-yarder to Pao.
In a pregame interview, Tata said the offensive line is the strength of the team, and they looked really solid Friday. Guys were shuffling in and out, but it appears that Enokk Vimahi, Silva Toelupe, Vili Fisiiahi, Marcus Lombard and Terauparaha Elkington got most of the playing time.
Defensively, it’s no comparison so far against last season’s Kahuku unit. You don’t snap your fingers and replace Keala Santiago, Bradlee Anae, Manaia Atuaia and Hirkley Latu. With those guys and more leading the way, Kahuku won its opener 50-0 over Campbell in 2015.
That doesn’t mean this defense is lacking. We may never see a better defense again like we did with the Red Raiders in 2015. It’s a work in progress right now, and with the defensive-minded Tata drawing it up, you can bet they’ll be improving steadily and be much more ready to play in the year’s biggest regular-season game as far as Hawaii high school football is concerned — Sept. 17 at two-time defending national rankings champion Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.
Kaniho had a fumble recovery, Aliki Vimahi had a sack and Ah-Hoy and Logan Matagi both had a tackle for loss.
The Red Raiders’ home opener is against Aiea next Friday. Na Alii (1-0) went on the road to defeat Nanakuli 27-14, also on Friday night.