GLORY DAYS: Coach Savai’i Eselu and the 2019 Moanalua Na Menehune

Savai'i Eselu signed with California at a signing day event with parents, Raymond and Tammy Eselu, in 2007. Star-Bulletin photo by Craig T. Kojima.


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

One coach 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.

Savai’i Eselu (99) during a Cal practice. Photo courtesy Cal athletics.

PART 15:


Savai’i Eselu learned a valuable lesson last season — the tough way. The very, very tough way.

“Last year ended in heartbreak and it’s totally and fully on me,” he said. “I simply got outcoached. I didn’t think certain things would came about. We didn’t prepare well for it and got caught off guard.”

An 8-0 start ended in the first round of the OIA playoffs in a 28-14 loss to Castle.

“I had a feeling they were going to change up their look and go with the passing game, so I was thinking about a giving them an unorthodox look and bring maybe two or three people,” the coach said. “They came out with the elephant package (quarterback running behind a large wall of blockers) and stayed with the elephant. They kept popping off huge yardage. They got clutch third-down stuff and what was even more concerning to me was that the time kept moving.”

On top of that, due to injuries during the week and some administrative things, Moanalua all of a sudden found itself short of offensive linemen.

“We were throwing fresh kids in who we pulled up from the JV, and offensively we went back solely to the run,” Eselu said. “Our practice was solid and I thought that we would be OK. But I got lazy in terms of my preparation for the boys. It was awesome, competitive practices, but in the game, it was bland. There wasn’t this sense of we’re flying high. It was lackadaisical, for me at least.

“Quarterback Nick Au had been having a field day all season. But he got hurt early in the game. I didn’t think of what we would do if he got hurt or got out of his element. So after that, I was so focused on ‘we gotta score’ that I didn’t think of using Rudy Kealohi on some special runs (that he scored on several times during the season). I didn’t think of using (defensive back and return threat) Trequan Henderson on offense. John Hao (the Castle coach) bracketed (top receiver) Ezra Grace once Rudy came in to play quarterback for Nick.”

Eselu didn’t stop giving reasons on just how Castle got it done.

“They were triple-teaming (defensive lineman) Tupu Alualu,” he added.

“We had a great season,” Eselu continued. “We will be trying to build off of that. The main thing is we’re on a mission, that’s for sure. For almost a year, I printed up a paper for myself that says, ‘Don’t ever get outcoached again.’ I’ve been reminded of that for nearly 365 days.

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s not as important as executing on every single rep, taking advantage of every rep and never taking it for granted. It’s been a spectacle to see this offseason. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a special year. I know what they can do. They respect the process and trust the deal. It’s fourth and goal every day. That’s the mentality. Outwork yesterday, that’s our motto. We’re hammering it though, grinding every day through the course of the offseason. Now, we’re about to turn the corner into the season. We’re ready to rock and roll. I know that what happened last year was on my accord. I apologized that the season was my fault and that it will never happen again.”

As a youngster, Eselu did not play Pop Warner football and started in the sport as a freshman at Moanalua.

“We didn’t have enough money,” he said. “Pop Warner was crazy expensive. I was too big for my age so I did my thing with basketball. I played a lot. I was actually thinking I could play college basketball.”

Two of Esulu’s best friends — Stanford Leti and Quinton Tang — goaded Eselu into trying out for football.

“I started out on the defensive line and my father (Ray Eselu) was a D-line coach in my first season in 2003,” he said. “I jumped up to the varsity sophomore year with coach (Arnold) Martinez and became a tight end. We ran the triple option. Stanford Leti was crazy good at the triple option. We were in the White Division. Senior year, we jumped up to the Red and got smacked everywhere. It was all good. I utilized football as a tool to a free education. It worked out well. Maybe not my body, but definitely the free degree.”

Eselu busted up his knee and had seven concussions along that college football path.

“That’s what shut me down at Cal,” he said. “Early on, it was the knee. Then after the last concussion, I was like, ‘This is going to stop right now.’ I still get strong migraines and have short-term memory loss. I should have been a pitcher.”

Upon graduating from Moanalua in 2007, most of the Pac-10 (not 12 teams yet) offered Eselu.

“USC, my dream school, was the only place that didn’t offer,” he said. “I was committed to Oregon for the longest time. I visited and told coach Mike Bellotti I was a duck. Then Stanford called. Cal was on the rise, with (running back) Marshawn Lynch, (quarterback) Aaron Rodgers, and (running back) DeSean Jackson. I was watching on TV when Cal smacked Oregon bad. I went to the Stanford-Cal game and started looking at Cal degrees — the No. 1 public university in the world, actually. I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’ My sister Sanoe was playing volleyball close by at Menlo.”

Sanoe, incidentally, is married to former University of Hawaii standout running back Nate Ilaoa.

“I flipped for the degree,” Eselu said. “It’s pretty cool because now that I look at it, that Cal class was loaded — (running back) Jahvid Best, (running back) Shane Vereen, (defensive end) Cameron Jordan, (offensive tackle) Mitchell Schwartz. I also played with (wide receiver) Keenan Allen, Alex Mack was our center, and my classmate, Chris Conte, went on to play in the secondary for the (Chicago) Bears and (Tampa Bay) Bucs.”

Savai’i Eselu Cal Football 2010. Photo courtesy Cal athletics.

Eselu’s knee injury came near the end of his freshman year.

“Everything exploded,” he said. “The doctor said the LCL is gone, the PCL is gone, the meniscus (is torn), the ACL is going to start giving out and that I have nothing left to support it. If I had surgery, I was going to miss a year. I decided to get surgery later, figuring I would have a better shot at the NFL. It was the dumbest decision ever. It was bad.

“I thought I could work my way up, but I never recovered. I tried to compensate and it made me slower. I was getting tagged by linebackers because I was a step slower. It was messing me up. That’s where the concussions came. I got in one game when we played Eastern Washington. I was always a backup tight end (from 2007 through ’10). I technically could have had a fifth year, but coach (Jeff) Tedford asked me to open it up for someone else.”

Interestingly, Eselu’s favorite moment in high school came when Na Menehune played its way up to the Red Division.

“We got to play Kahuku my senior year,” he said. “I always wanted the challenge and they were the challenge right there. We knew we worked our butts off to get to the Red. Yeah, we got stomped on, but I’d rather be stomped on by the top than be the champ on the bottom.”

Eselu feels fortunate to have had his father as an assistant at Moanalua for his four years and as a part of his staff now.

“From him, I learned you never give up and make due with what you’ve got and roll with it,” he said. “Don’t expect people to give you stuff if you don’t deserve it.”

Eselu’s wife, Tatiana, was a lineman in youth football with the Palama Scorpions. She is the sister of Tyson Alualu, who is now a defensive end with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Eselu does take coaching tips from Tatiana.

“When mama says practice is over, practice is over,” he said.

Moanalua’s Rudy Kealohi returns as the team’s leading receiver from last season. Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell/Star-Advertiser.


>> 2018 record and finish: 8-1 (7-0 OIA Division I); Lost to Castle 28-14 in OIA D-I semifinals.

>> Head coach Savai’i Eselu’s staff:
— Savai’i Eselu (offensive coordinator, offensive line)
— Lasi Eselu (defensive coordinator)
— Jarrett Tanigawa (secondary)
— Ray Eselu (defensive line)
— Ray Sayers (defensive backs)
— Micah Kaneshiro (quarterbacks)
— Jon-Michael Sharsh (receivers)
— Chaz Barit (defensive analyst)
— Nick Miller (offensive analyst)
— Aaron Hudman (offensive line)

>> Approximate varsity and JV numbers: 45 varsity, 45 JV

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

>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections lost to graduation: Trequan Henderson (first-team RET, second-team DB); Tupu Alualu (second-team DL).

>> Players with Division I FBS college offers: None

>> Among 2019 key returnees: Aukai Grace, Sr., CB; Rashod Tanner, Sr., CB; Rudy Kealohi, Sr., slotback; Jett Tanigawa, Sr., LB; Christian Sison Sr., S.

>> All-time state championships: None

>> All-time Prep Bowl (1973-1998) championships: None

>> All-time OIA championships: 1 (D-II, 2009)

>> 2019 conference: OIA Division I



Part 16: Coach Wendell Say and the 2019 Aiea Na Alii


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
>> Coach Mark Kurisu and the 2019 Leilehua Mules
>> Coach Pat Silva and the 2019 McKinley Tigers
>> Coach Kili Watson and the 2019 Nanakuli Golden Hawks
>> Coach Tim Seaman and the 2019 Kaiser Cougars
>> Coach Daniel Sanchez and the 2019 Farrington Governors
>> Coach Scott Melemai and the 2019 Kalani Falcons
>> Coach Lincoln Barit and the 2019 Waialua Bulldogs


  1. ??? July 10, 2019 2:37 pm

    “I’d rather be stomped on by the top than be the champ on the bottom.”
    I love his attitude, play anybody, anywhere, anytime!!

  2. notes July 11, 2019 9:39 am

    i love his public school mentality. red raider nation always plays with respect and we respect those teams that go up and up against us. too bad there are other teams like saint louis and punahou that don’t share the same mentality

  3. HD July 11, 2019 12:04 pm

    One of my all-time favorite coaches! He’s even scrimmaging Saint Louis this preseason! Always up for a challenge! Good luck coach Eselu!

  4. Keith July 11, 2019 1:29 pm

    Agree with notes and hd on coach,playing better only way get better..and I hear that the Public school is academically highly ranked,great for STUDENT Athletes…plus coach Cal grad,pretty impressive,support youth football

  5. Coconut Wireless July 13, 2019 12:05 pm

    Moanalua had a great run during the regular season but unfortunately fell apart in their semi final playoff game. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong throughout the game for them till the clock became a factor. To Castle’s credit, they did what they needed to do to win the game. It was definitely one of the upsets of the year. Castle had been running their pre historic elephant package throughout the season and had really no passing game to speak of. It’s too bad as Moanalua and their coaching Staff had done a nice job up to that point. Still, It was a great season for them and take nothing away from that. Hope they can repeat their success this coming season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email