This dang rain hasn’t stopped.
It stalls though. It holds up every now and then. But tonight? It hasn’t really stopped. At times, the wet stuff fell from the Halawa sky relentlessly. Not enough to create huge puddles right away. Just wet enough to make any receiver think twice about fundamentals.
And more than moisture, there was wind. It was constant from the mauka end zone to the makai, especially early in the day when Waianae and Kahuku played. By the time Mililani and Saint Louis met, it was — as my co-worker Billy Hull forecasted in the press box — rain falling without ceasing.
I only think about the rain at this point, nearing the midnight hour in an empty Aloha Stadium, because I remember Mililani quarterback McKenzie Milton last week. After an amazing performance, his first game back since suffering an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder, he mentioned that the wet weather didn’t mesh well with brand-new, state-tournament footballs. Broken in, he added, the balls are great. But he viewed the difficulty as something he could work on at practice.
What he couldn’t foresee was a relentless Saint Louis defense coming at him from all angles, all night, until he was knocked out of a game for the second time in his senior season. There was a late hit out of bounds by the Crusaders earlier, but the blow that caused a re-injury of his shoulder came with 5:10 left in the second quarter. He laid there, his pass downfield — a deep one — complete for 29 yards. It was almost exactly like the play at Kailua seven weeks ago that caused the initial injury.
This time, the play was called back by offsetting penalties: 1) a holding call, 2) roughing the passer, and 3) a targeting call (downfield on the reception) that resulted in the ejection of one of Saint Louis’ defensive backs.
But the stadium was quiet, quiet, quiet. Milton got up under his own power after staying on the ground for a minute or two. But he never returned. He later had a sling on that same injured shoulder. It was a gritty, heartfelt effort by the 2014 All-State offensive player of the year.
The night went on and nothing was the same. So what did we learn tonight? What have we learned from the first two weeks of the Division I state championships? And the first week of the D-II state playoffs, which resume on Saturday?
Timing is everything
Milton had not had a serious injury in more than two seasons as a starting QB for the most explosive, electrifying offense in the OIA. Then came the injury at Kailua on a clean hit. Then the great comeback. Then tonight’s injury. Was there any real way for him to avoid taking big hits? I suppose the Trojans could’ve called for a diet of nothing but short throws and running plays. Keep him safe. But that’s not Mililani football. As Coach Rod York always says, they take what a defense gives them. And Milton follows the mantra wholeheartedly. His receiver was in solo coverage deep. He trusts his boys. He aired it out. He became vulnerable.
Whether you’re a Mililani fan or not, the sight of him on the ground motionless and in pain, it’s not the way fans wanted to see it end. But it’s football.
Tua Tagovailoa has dealt with quad, knee and other injuries this fall. Unlike his sophomore season (33 TD passes, just three picks), junior year has been a beach for the smooth, southpaw slinger. Defenses come at him, and injuries to the O-line early in the season created a lot of mobility situations by necessity.
Tagovailoa, like Milton, is as classy as he is talented. He kept helping his coaches groom those O-linemen, and eventually they matured. Eventually, guys like big Nate Herbig returned to the field. Now Tagovailoa is relatively healthy at the best time of year. Milton had that fortune last year, staying healthy and sparking Mililani to its first state title.
Timing was not on Mililani’s side this fall. It’s clearly with Saint Louis, at least when it comes to their quarterback. Tagovailoa’s numbers tonight: 15-for-18, 376 yards, three TD passes, two rushing TDs (and 58 rushing yards on seven carries). Has there ever been a more efficient performance in the semifinals? (I’m sure Jerry Campany, the Mad Librarian, knows.)
(Note: Jerry did find this after I posted this piece — 2010, 17-for-19, 349 yards, two TDs, one INT. The quarterback? MM8. Marcus Mariota in a win over Leilehua. He also ran for 49 yards and a TD on nine attempts. He wasn’t bad, was he? As in possibly the most efficient QB in state history.)
Timing is everything. Even more than willpower. Hope. Desire. Two great teams battled, one great field general went down. We didn’t get the down-to-the-final-play finish most of us probably expected. Timing. We never really control it.
Who Drew This Up?
Well, with Tagovailoa healthy and whipping that spiral near and far all night — as good as I’ve seen all season probably because he’s not in as much pain as he was during the injuries — Mililani’s secondary faced a stiff challenge. After a couple of early sacks, Saint Louis’ O-line regrouped — Herbig said they constantly talked it out and communicated — in the storm of a pass rush that Mililani brought. Over and over, the Trojans brought the blitz from different angles, heavy on one side or another at times, and that gave Crusaders WR Drew Kobayashi opportunities. Tagovailoa and Kobayashi developed a keep radar for each other, especially on those deep outs just beyond the first-down chain, this fall. But tonight, Kobayashi kept going and hit the deep post as Mililani sent a safety to the opposite, trips side.
“We saw that from the first drive,” said Kobayashi, a Cal commit. “It’s a gamble for them, but it’s a blessing for us. Perfect ball. I just had to make the catch and run.
With everything revving and humming in the Saint Louis offensive engine, it was phenomenal to watch.
I didn’t get a chance to interview Vavae Malepeai after the game, but I already know this: he’d trade anything on a stat sheet, anything (almost) of earthly possessions, for a chance for his Trojans to be healthy and playing in the state championship again. It wasn’t to be.
It wasn’t because he didn’t try. He aggravated a shoulder injury — he termed it a stinger when it first happened in last week’s opening-round win against Hilo (12 carries, 127 yards) — tonight after Milton left the game. By then, Mililani was down by a substantial amount of points.
Guess what? He’s a true lion heart. He returned to the field and kept taking handoffs from Mililani’s fourth-string QB (another freshman). He kept hitting the hole full blast. He never relented. He ran like a beast. He went out like a king: 32 carries, 258 yards, one TD. He broke legendary Joe Igber’s career rushing mark tonight. (See the post here.) He already broke Igber’s career TD mark earlier in the season and finished his career with 71 TDs in all.
Will there ever be a RB quite like Vavae Malepeai again? Of course, it’s possible. There are so many talented, physical specimens in the islands. But how many will have the heart and dedication? Very, very few. Then add in this factor: touches. How many future ballcarriers will have the opportunity to run the ball like Malepeai has. It’s not like he averaged 30 carries per game. But he was consistent. He caught passes. He picked up blitzes. He was durable in spite of preseason toe injuries to begin his junior and senior seasons.
When another dude as talented and hungry as Malepeai comes along, he could break the rushing yardage and TD marks, certainly. Malepeai didn’t carry the ball at the varsity level until his sophomore year after transferring from Saint Louis. So there you go. A guy who is already a big (6 feet, 200 pounds), durable, fast, dedicated, skilled and talented athlete could possibly start as a freshman at a public school (the ILH forbids freshmen from playing varsity football). It could happen.
I’m not holding my breath. If someone had held his or her breath after Igber set his records, there’d be someone passed out on the floor in the 20 years since.
There will probably not be another Malepeai in terms of numbers. Not for another two decades. There will be a lot of great athletes and dedicated ones, at that. But to stay healthy and get the touches? Not likely.
OK, Kalakaua Timoteo didn’t quite break a career yardage mark like his teammate, Malepeai, did. But is there any argument, really, that there was a more physical, game-changing receiver a consistent rate this season? There are a handful of pass catchers who were elite this season. (Maybe a few more than a handful, actually, but that’s for another post.) But Timoteo was the most active, probably got the most touches, and made the most of those opportunities. It didn’t hurt that Mililani played a huge amount of games compared to ILH teams. But that’s not Timoteo’s fault.
His final stat line in a glorious prep career: seven receptions, 158 yards, three TDs of 27, 66 and 40 yards. He took on some of the finest cornerbacks in the islands and made many of them look pedestrian at times. Oh, he wasn’t totally unstoppable, but he was pretty close. I’m going to miss watching this guy go to work as much as I’ll miss Malepeai and Milton. Man, that was a ridonkulously great offense. We may never see another one as good over a three-year span.
Merciless on the Crusade
There’s something to be said for the nature of a combat sport like football. There’s savagery. There’s violence. There’s humility. Often enough, all elements in the same single play.
When Ronson Timbreza saw Milton scrambling toward the sideline, the rangy cornerback didn’t hold back. He went after Milton with a fury, unleashing a solid hit — after Milton was two or three yards out of bounds. The flag fell. Personal foul. Milton went at Timbreza on the next play, but couldn’t get a clean followthrough on his delivery, and the ball fell well short of Kalakaua Timoteo. Timbreza intercepted and returned the ball to midfield.
Maybe it’s unfair that a QB who got whacked on a late hit gets picked off a few seconds later by that same guy. But it’s football. There is no justice when it comes to something like that. I doubt the play was designed to get even with Timbreza, who is one of the best cornerbacks I’ve seen all year. It was simply an opportunity with Timoteo, arguably the finest WR in the state, having a height advantage on the cornerback deep down the sideline. Mililani takes what is given. I’ve got to go back and look at the video, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Milton was under duress during that throw, rolling to his left.
Timbreza had two picks for the night. On his second pick, he was brought down near mid-field, then kneeled and made the sign of the cross. It is, as most fans know, the paradox of battle. We expect our warriors to go out and punish the opponent as hard as possible, but still give thanks after every gift is given. It may seem a bit hypocritical to some, but what else would we expect? Would we want our athletes to be ungrateful? Selfish? Graceless?
There are some folks who think it’s not kind to compete hard regardless of the situation. That playing with 100-percent effort at all times is too much, particularly when the score starts to get out of hand, regardless of whatever sport or competition. But competitors, true competitors, want the best from their foes from start to finish. Not pity. And boy, there was no pity on the field tonight, just two teams of gladiators going at it start to finish.
Playing physical defense — though Crusaders Coach Cal Lee thinks his defense wasn’t physical enough — is something that wasn’t totally there in recent years. Much of that was simply due to lack of depth in a brutal ILH schedule. They’ve come a long way on that side of the ball. A long, long way.
Interceptor or Simply A Mutant Human Magnet of Pigskin
Timbreza has been an interception magnet at times this season. Incredible instincts and, as Lee says, he “plays bigger than his size.”
But even more so, Keala Santiago has been so perfectly positioned in these last two games. His two picks tonight give him FIVE in two postseason contests. His film study is something to behold. He is in perfect position on every pick during this postseason. He knows where the ball is going even before quarterbacks throw the ball. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
I’ll tell you how it’s possible. It’s supernatural. Extraordinary. That’s what we have learned about Santiago, who comes from a family of outstanding football players. Genetics. Studying. Athleticism. And that unique ability to run to a spot and convince all quarterbacks to throw directly to him. Kahuku’s had some fantastic defensive backs over the years, but when I load this video and get another good look this weekend, my mind will probably be blown. Again.
If it ain’t broken…
It wouldn’t be accurate, I think, to assume that anybody at Kahuku is surprised by their 12-0 mark. By their 13-0 semifinal win over Waianae tonight. By their scintillating defense, which has now shut out seven teams this season. (This includes the 20-7 win over Mililani in the OIA title game, when the Trojans got a touchdown on defense.)
I do believe, though, that there were some question marks when the Red Raiders lost their starting QB. So this is what really trips me out: instead of becoming dependent on a backup QB who had no varsity experience, Coach Vavae Tata examined his personnel and put an exclamation point on something he already wanted to do.
From day one, as he reminded me recently, he’s wanted Kahuku to fully embrace smashmouth football. Tonight, they did it again. Oh, they went shotgun, trips formation quite a bit, too, with efficient Cameron Renaud at QB. But Tata stood his ground. After an early interception toss by Kesi Ah-Hoy, the Red Raiders were in hammer mode, bashing away one play at a time.
Waianae didn’t fold. It would’ve been a scoreless tie at halftime if not for a late field goal by the guy with the jumbo leg, Kekoa Sasaoka. But it was quite evident; Tata would’ve been content to go into the locker room with the score at 0-0. Well, not content, but he wasn’t going to alter his offensive philosophy entirely just because it was a close game.
Someone had to give in during this gridiron version of “chicken”, and when Keala Santiago returned a pick to the house, that basically was all Big Red needed. They added another Sasaoka field goal in the final 5 minutes and won 13-0, but Tata has been extraordinarily old-school about his approach. Special teams matter. Defense wins a lot of games. Offense? After the game, he said they’ll go back and work on it.
He knows. Sometimes defense and special teams are more than enough to win a championship. Seven shutouts. I don’t imagine they’ll shut Saint Louis out, too. Or could they?
Waianae did not allow a Kahuku offensive touchdown
And still couldn’t win. That’s how good Kahuku is. But hey, any defense that can accomplish what Waianae did tonight — Kahuku scored on a pick-six and two field goals — should be proud. Very proud. I know Seariders Coach Walter Young was stoked about his guys and their effort, particularly on defense.
“I love these kids. I wouldn’t change them for anyone else,” he said after the game.
Head’s up on Waianae. They’ll return quite a bit of talent next season. And they held Kahuku to 13 points. Nobody in the state fared as well. (Mililani surrendered 20 points in the OIA title game against Kahuku.) The Seariders can take that with them as the offseason grind begins.
A silver dynasty going for the gold
A lot of fans of UH didn’t like it when June Jones added an Oakland Raider-ish silver helmet-with-gray-pants look with the white jerseys. (This was many years ago, for you younger keiki who don’t remember Colt Brennan. Go look on YouTube and be amazed.) Kapaa did something similar in recent years, and it wasn’t just about fine threads. The Warriors upped their game with the development of the varsity and JV programs under then-coach Kelii Morgado.
Now Kapaa is in position to advance to the state final in Division II. All that stands between the Warriors and a date in Aloha Stadium are the Lahainaluna Lunas, a team that has been a force in D-II for years. The Lunas are young. They are talented. They don’t really know that young teams aren’t supposed to contend for titles.
When I interviewed Co-Head Coach Garrett Tihada after their win over Kaimuki last week, it was impossible to ignore the emotion in his voice. His pride in a team that was outsized, but battling to the end. The Lunas’ game-by-game results are a string of mostly low-scoring games, an oddity for a program that has been practically dynastic in the MIL — against D-I and D-II foes alike — for most of the past decade. For all the lack of bravado (a Luna trait) and lack of hype (true of every Luna football coach I’ve ever spoken to, like, say… Bobby Watson and Tihada), Lahainaluna stands out among the crowd. They warm up a little differently from most teams. In fact, they kind of seem like a team — not just this year, but any season — that time-travelled from the 1960s or ’70s and brought hard-nosed, no-nonsense football with them.
Facemasks? Aaaah, we don’t need that stuff.
But seriously, Saturday’s matchup between the Lunas and Warriors at Vidinha Stadium will be close. It has to be. When the teams met in preseason, Kapaa escaped with a close win. I look at this matchup like this: it will be either a close Lahainaluna win or a substantial Kapaa victory. One thing is certain: the Lunas will bring their tradition and pride, and those things go a long way in high school sports these days.
Coach of the Year?
I have no idea how the voting will go when it’s time for All-State selections. And it’s going to be hard, hard, hard. In D-II, I can’t imagine any two coaches doing more despite limited resources and personnel (depth wise) than Eddie Klaneski at Damien and David Tautofi at Kaimuki.
Klaneski has been a real trooper at his alma mater. Damien doesn’t give out big financial-aid packages, but for decades they’ve competed against some prodigious institutions that do. It’s a free world, no doubt, and there’s nothing wrong with going to a big-time private school. Damien is big-time in terms of academics, turning out students who move on to some of the country’s better universities. Remember Kealoha Pilares accepting that scholarship to the Air Force Academy? He was a brainiac, especially in Calculus.
What Klaneski has done over the years requires more than loyalty. He believes in the process. He believes strongly in it. Faith. Not many men or women would stay this long at a school when the challenge is this daunting. But he made it work. He and his staff stuck through all adversity and won an ILH championship. The future is bright, too. They’ll return some talented players, and though the ILH will be tough again, the Monarchs are going to be the D-II favorites.
Kaimuki has been successful at the D-II level many times over the years, from the eras of Daniel Mafua, Darren Johnson and Clint Onigama. Tautofi came along at the right time — timing is everything, right? — and transformed a group of non-believers into a unified force of overachievers. Who goes to the home field of a defending champion (Nanakuli), falls behind with 11 seconds left, and still has the will to win?
True, a lot of teams would have that spark still within. But Kaimuki had struggled in recent seasons. It would’ve been almost expected of the Bulldogs to fade in those final 11 ticks. But Andrew Neves returned that kickoff 84 yards to paydirt. Kaimuki reached the state tourney. Nobody stops believing because Tautofi and his staff never did.
Faith. It does matter. Nothing else really does.
When power is still power
Konawaena is on a roll under first-year head coach Brad Uemoto, no doubt. But even Uemoto notes the tremendous talent at Radford, likening the Rams to the Kaiser squad that won the D-II state title under then-coach Rich Miano a couple of seasons ago. True, the Rams have always been well-coached thanks to Fred Salanoa and his staff of former collegians. And they were attractive enough that some key players arrived in the offseason and have produced in a big way.
Radford’s unbeaten run has been about defense first and foremost, and a bruising ground attack. Konawaena? Winning in the postseason hasn’t been the rule for the Wildcats, though they’ve had their share of BIIF titles going back more than three decades. A win over Radford on Saturday afternoon at Ticky Vasconcellos Stadium would put Uemoto’s program in the title game, and that would be a first.
All indications are that Radford is too powerful. Too fast. Too deep. Too well-coached to be toppled. Konawaena? The ‘Cats have nothing to lose. Outside of the Big Island, not many people have seen them play, let alone recognize their standouts like QB Austin Ewing or RB Algene Kelekolio, who had a huge game against Damien last week. Konawaena is a mystery, really.
Uemoto has had the magic touch before. As a senior, he helped Konawaena rally furiously in the final minutes to edge Honokaa in a hotly-contested battle of BIIF title contenders. Uemoto caught a touchdown pass as time expired to give the Wildcats the win. Coaching under the prior head coach, Cliff Walters, he gained a lot of experience as the ‘Cats won league titles.
But the timing was right for his promotion after Walters stepped down. Right man at the right time. Will he have the Midas touch for his team in Saturday’s D-II semifinal? An upset win this weekend would top that crazy finish and victory over Honokaa oh, so many years ago.
The Teacher still teaches
Cal Lee. Ron Lee. Vinnie Passas. Jeremiah Cockheran.
The list of Saint Louis coaches goes on and on with talented teachers, creative minds. Same with Mililani. Waianae. Kahuku. Tonight, the teacher, Cal Lee, got past one of the state’s finest young coaches, Rod York. Though York never played for Lee — he was a standout at ‘Iolani — the two have worked together on neighbor-island clinics, along with Saint Louis offensive coordinator Ron Lee and other coaches.
Sure, injuries were a part of tonight’s battle between Mililani and Saint Louis. We never got to see a chess match truly unfold between York and his staff, and the Lees and their staff. For more than a quarter, though, it was absolutely mesmerizing.
It was Hagler-Hearns, I thought. And I hoped it would last longer than three rounds. Maybe I should’ve hoped harder.
Now it’s Tata against Lee, though neither man would view it that way. But Tata played for Cal Lee at Saint Louis, long before he became a college player, and then a college assistant coach. Those seeds were planted back in the islands, back at places like Kalaepohaku. The student against the teacher. Even Kahuku OC John Hao, a former QB under the Lees at Saint Louis, will be in a big-brain challenge against his alma mater.
Lee said after tonight’s game that his team — the defensive unit — has to be much more physical if they’re going to withstand Kahuku’s smashmouth attack. Both teams will settle back in by Saturday. Coaches will take a deep breath, enjoy a moment or two. Catch their collective breath.
Then it’s time to game plan for the championship bout. Saint Louis. Kahuku. Heavyweights in so many ways.
Mililani learned so much from Saint Louis’ offensive philosophy and schemes. Saint Louis had two picks of Milton before he got hurt. They knew, to an apparently good extent, what to expect. Cal Lee may have coached Tata, but what Kahuku does with that jumbo, no-wide receiver formation is something he hasn’t quite seen, even at the college level. But he has been and still is a defensive guru. The Crusaders found ways to get Mililani and the mobile Milton off-rhythm. Can they do the same to Kahuku’s bulldozers up front?
We are all still learning. In one week, we will learn much more.