GLORY DAYS: Coach Mark Kurisu and the 2019 Leilehua Mules

Leilehua head coach Mark Kurisu played safety at Linfield (Ore.) in college. Photo courtesy Mark Kurisu.


This summer, head coaches from all 28 Oahu high school varsity football teams are being asked to recount their football playing days.

One coach who has already been interviewed for this multi-part series pointed out what he thinks may be the value of this endeavor:

“A lot of times, you only hear about coaches when they’re getting released or are having a special season. It’s super hard to have a special season, so this should shed more light on them as people and their journey of when they were student-athletes. It’s going to bring more respect to the people who are doing this job. They didn’t all of a sudden become a high school coach because they coached Pop Warner. These guys have gone through it all, they’ve run the gamut of experiences.”

Some made it to the NFL. Others went to big colleges. Still others went the small-college route. They started as young’uns and got the bug, falling in love with football and taking pride in passing on their knowledge.

Along with the coaches’ look-back at their football-playing pasts, they also give their outlook on where their programs are at heading into the 2019 season.

Leilehua coach Mark Kurisu, left, and some of his Linfield teammates in 1997. Photo courtesy Mark Kurisu.



Mark Kurisu is still doing Linfield College “stuff.”

Various Linfield football alumni — many with Hawaii connections — will see a scheme the Leilehua coach employs for his Mules on defense and can’t miss the similarities.

“A lot of the Linfield guys who get to watch us play on TV call me up and ask, ‘You’re running Linfield stuff, aren’t you?’ ” Kurisu said.

The answer is yes. What he learned back in the day from that storied small-college program in McMinnville, Ore., he has carried with him to this day.

But for Kurisu, football became a reality as a young boy with the Wahiawa Lancers in Pop Warner. And he suited up as a smallish offensive lineman, which is not uncommon in Central Oahu’s country kind of town.

“From seventh grade through high school, I played offensive line and then (going to Linfield) I realized I couldn’t play line anymore so I started to play safety,” Kurisu said. “My cousin Jeffrey Navares taught me how to play line and I had a bunch of uncles (including head coach John Navares) as my (Wahiawa Lancers) coaches. My brother Matt was on that team, and he was more of a skilled guy. I used to watch my (Navares) cousins play a lot.”

As a Mule, Kurisu remembers some of the tough customers he played with, including Calvin Melvin, Carlos Anderson, Larry Tate and Tito Rivera.

“I also played and graduated with Mervyn Lilo, who is the first and only Leilehua player in history to start all four years. That was a huge accomplishment.”

In college, there is no place on the line for someone 5 feet, 10 inches and 185 pounds, which is where Kurisu topped out as a player. So, the switch to safety was necessary if he wanted to stay on the field.

“Once I figured out I had to move to safety, I knew I would have to do conditioning on my own,” Kurisu said. “A cousin of mine, Kalani Navares, one of the bunch of older cousins I got to watch when I was younger, pushed me to get going. I learned a lot from him. He was an offensive coordinator at Moanalua and he is basically the role model for what I’m doing now.

“(Navares) hadn’t coached in a while for various reasons and said that the only way he would ever come back is if I became a head coach. So, when I got the job (before the 2017 season), he was the first person I called. He is on the staff now.”

The switch from O-line to safety was not easy.

“They (safeties) run a lot and that is difficult,” Kurisu said. “Linemen are good for 5- to 10-yard bursts. Defensive backs are running 20 to 30 yards. I definitely had to get faster, had to get in better shape. At Linfield, they clocked all the DBs in 4-something in the 40. I ran it in 5.1.”

But he put the work in and got it down to 4.6 eventually.

“I trained with William Paulding, who went on to play at Long Beach City College. We did two-a-days, lifted weights, running at the parks and streets, running late at night.

“One night at Kaala, we were running on the road and the police drove by and said, ‘Excuse me. We’re out here because there are suspicious people running around.’ They were wondering if we were thieves or something. We said, ‘No sir. It’s just us running around.’ ”

When Kurisu came back to Oahu after his four years of college football, he went to Leilehua to work out.

“Coach (Cass) Ishitani would let me come in. I met coach Jon (Morikawa) and coach Nolan (Tokuda). They offered me a coaching job since I had college experience. I was doing strength and conditioning work. That’s the year we had Lauvale Sape. He went on to do great things at Utah and was the last Leilehua guy to make it to the NFL.”

Kurisu, who also got a teaching job at Leilehua around that time, has been there for 21 years, 17 as an assistant (mostly as defensive coordinator).

He recalls working to be technically sound as a player, which is not surprising since Linfield and Leilehua are known for their precision. But there was more he was bringing to the table.

“I was always thinking about the opponent — I’m going to out-technique you, but also, being a local boy, I’m going to outwork you,” he said. “I believe I’m going to have a bigger heart. That’s what I was always taught in Wahiawa and at Leilehua — have a big heart, be courageous, sell out for your teammates.”

Mark Kurisu played offensive line for the Mules in the early 1990s. Photo courtesy Mark Kurisu.

Kurisu was part of the Leilehua squad that knocked off Kahuku 28-22 in the 1991 OIA playoffs, and he ranks that as his greatest high school accomplishment.

“Kahuku was loaded that year,” he said. “We were undersized and overmatched. No one gave us a shot. We pulled off one of the biggest upsets in state history. That’s a very special team memory.”

Kurisu was an assistant in 2004 when Leilehua upset heavily favored Kahuku 17-14 in the HHSAA Division I state semifinals.

Before the game, Kurisu showed video of the 1991 game to the team. Here is what he told the players after the game, according to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story from that time:

“You visualized it and you watched them count down 3, 2, 1,” Kurisu told the players. “You saw what it was like. It happened on the video and it happened now. We shocked the world, man.”

Here is his recollection of that now: “We brought out the film to show it was possible. You don’t have to be the biggest. You just gotta execute. They got to watch that and they went out and did the same thing. That was a special moment — to see it, believe it themselves and actually live it out.”

Three years later, once again under head coach Tokuda and DC Kurisu, the Mules got their second state title.

Kurisu is happy with last year’s 8-3 mark and he says the team is raring to go in a quest to chase down a championship in 2019.

“Some people were thinking we should have done better, but in my opinion, we did our best,” he said. “We were a really young team with a lot of first-year starters on the varsity. We pulled up five sophomores and they all started for us.”

The season came to an end in a 29-6 loss to Waipahu in the first round of the OIA Division I playoffs.

And this year?

“We’re definitely ahead of schedule,” Kurisu said. “We want to get into the Open Division (eventually), so we’ve got to make sure we’re tight from top to bottom in the program. The JV team lost in the Open semifinals two years ago and last year went undefeated and won the OIA championship in Division I.

“We are definitely trending upward, and a lot of what we’re doing is in the classroom and on character side of it, the little things like making decisions, helping other people out, helping teammates, think of them, and not just you trying to get in college.”

He’s thinking he’s got a solid team.

“This team reminds me of two years ago, when we made a a solid run,” he said. “It happens when you have depth, work hard together, go through adversity together and accomplish things together. You’re trusting the process, putting the plan in place and the coaches and players are buying in and executing.

“When you compete, you compete to be the best. We always want to be conference and OIA champions. You gotta play each game. You can’t jump from the preseason to the championship game. We’re trying to put players in the right places so they’re successful.”

Leilehua junior receiver Kalei Akagi is one of the top returnees for the Mules in 2019. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser.


>> 2018 record and finish: 8-3 (6-1 OIA Division I): lost to Waipahu 29-6 in the OIA D-I semifinals.

>> Head coach Mark Kurisu’s staff:
— Mark Kurisu (defensive coordinator, safeties)
— Andrew Manley (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks)
— Kalani Navares (strength, character quality control)
— Darrin Matsumiya (linebackers, special teams)
— Alasi Matautia (defensive line)
— Ritchie Lapenia (cornerbacks)
— Wayne Thompson (offensive line)
— Tristan Kamaka (receivers, slotbacks)
— Kimo Manley (running backs)

>> Approximate varsity and JV numbers: 120 combined

>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections returning: None.

>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections lost to graduation: Akoni Tom-Makue (first-team P); Jeremy Evans (second-team REC); James McGary (third-team RB).

>> Players with Division I FBS college offers: None.

>> Among 2019 key returnees: Kalei Akagi, Jr., WR, 5-10, 175; Jayzon Ramos, Sr., slotback, 6-0, 180; Kiaka Pio, Jr. DE, 6-1, 235; Jaku Hanohano-Baptista, Sr., DT, 5-10 245; Terrance Lokan, Sr., OT, 6-3 315.

>> All-time state championships: 1 (2007, D-I)

>> All-time Prep Bowl (1973-1998) championships: 1 (1984)

>> All-time OIA championships: 4 (all D-I — 1940, 1974, 1984, 2007)

>> 2019 conference: OIA Division I



Part Nine: Coach Pat Silva and the 2019 McKinley Tigers


Previously in the series:
>> Coach Darren Johnson and the 2019 Campbell Sabers
>> Coach John Hao and the 2019 Castle Knights
>> Coach Eddie Klaneski and the 2019 Damien Monarchs
>> Coach David Tautofi and the 2019 Kaimuki Bulldogs
>> Coach Kale Ane and the 2019 Punahou Buffanblu
>> Coach Mike Fanoga and the 2019 Waianae Seariders
>> Coach Bryson Carvalho and the 2019 Waipahu Marauders


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