Fred Salanoa stepped away from high school football head coaching at the pinnacle of his craft.
Radford defeated all comers in the 2015 season, capped with hoisting the HHSAA Division II state championship.
But after his 13 years at the helm, the Rams endured some tough times after he stepped away. Their only win over the next two years came via forfeit over Kaiser in 2017. Radford was spunkier in 2018, Lon Passos’ third season, but still managed to go only 2-8 with wins over Kailua and Nanakuli.
Salanoa, who assisted at Punahou, Kamehameha, and at his college alma mater Eastern Washington in the intervening years, made his return to head coaching at his old high school on Friday night, and for a half, at least, it seemed a storybook type of evening for the Rams. They struck first behind a sophomore quarterback, Jiovanni “JT” Tafisi, who looked poised beyond what you’d expect of someone making his first start at the varsity level.
But the second half was all Aiea, as Na Alii rattled off 27 unanswered points in a 34-19 win for the hosts. It snapped a 13-game winning streak for Salanoa (the Rams went 13-0 in 2015), and a four-game streak for him in season openers.
Salanoa, who wore a smile talking with friends and fellow coaches before the game, was still relatively upbeat afterward.
“It’s good (to be back),” Salanoa said as he walked off Aiea’s field toward the team bus. “Just trying to get these guys to buy into the expectations that we have. They played a decent first half, and I think they got too happy with the score at halftime (19-7). We gotta learn how to finish, and that’s what we gotta make sure we stress to these guys.
“There’s so many things to be learned from this game. We just gotta go back to the drawing board. Good game by Aiea. They stuck it out and they never gave up.”
Aiea made life tougher for Tafisi after intermission. At halftime, he was 12-for-17 for 124 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions. But Na Alii picked him thrice from there, including a 44-yard runback for a touchdown by Mana Young-Tavai to open the fourth quarter when Tafisi telegraphed his target along the left sideline. He completed just two of his final 16 throws, finishing 19-for-42 for 199 yards.
“He did what he could. He got cramped up later on in the game and he still stuck through and came on and fought,” Salanoa said. “Again, just trying to get these guys to believe in themselves and do what is necessary to come out with a positive outcome.”
Senior wide receiver Damon Nelson was a bright spot for the Rams; he caught eight balls for 76 yards, and most notably had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half.
Salanoa contrasted the experience of being back with the Rams to his duties as an assistant elsewhere the last few years.
“It’s a little bit different when you run the program,” he said. “But that’s what we’re trying to do here, is just try to get everybody to be on the same page and believe in what we’re doing here at Radford.”
Even as the game was getting away from Radford in the final minutes, there was a point of pride. On Tafisi’s final interception, to Dylan Soberano in the waning minutes, running back DJ Alpha hustled to knock Soberano out at the 1-yard line and prevent a 60-yard touchdown return.