The sky is mostly blue with bright white clouds above the lush field at Kaimuki High School.
The sun is scorching, but the breeze is constant. The mood is pleasant. The Bulldogs are on the soft green grass a good 15 minutes before practice begins, relaxing and stretching. Talking. For any football team still suiting up this late in the season, the vibe is certainly jovial.
Every day, before practice, they line up in rows and sing their alma mater. It’s 33 seconds of simple, pure unity.
Coming one win from capturing the OIA D-II championship has this group of Bulldog seniors in new territory. This core was too young to experience postseason voyages led by previous coaches. Under first-year head coach David Tautofi, they are as composed and resilient as they come. Now, Kaimuki (7-4) is a few days away from boarding a plane and transporting to Maui, where they’ll ride up the West Maui coast line to Lahainaluna (6-5) for Saturday afternoon’s battle.
It’s been a wild swing of highs and lows — mostly high — for Andrew Neves and his teammates. He was a big part of Kaimuki’s miracle finish against Nanakuli, returning a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown on the final play to win the game and seal a state-tournament berth for the Bulldogs. Then came last week’s OIA D-II title-game loss to Radford.
“The feeling coming back, there’s a lot of praise not just for me, but the whole team. It showed how hard we worked, that we deserved it. The feeling is not complete, but we got one step closer to our original goal,” Neves said. “We missed an opportunity (against Radford), but going into states we feel that going into states, God has given us another chance to something bigger with our lives,” Neves said. “We show the community that our fight isn’t over. It’s just beginning.”
Neves, whose uncle, Larry Neves, quarterbacked the Bulldogs in the early 1980s, says the 2015 ‘Dogs use adversity as a fuel.
“Although we lost that game (to Radford), it put us a step ahead because it gave us the determination to fight back for something we feel we could’ve taken, we feel, if we execute a little more during the game,” he said. “We know what we have to fix and we’re going to work for it.”
The Bulldogs aren’t extremely familiar with Lahainaluna as of recent years, but they’ve gotten a chance to do some video study. Lahainaluna’s decades-old single-wing offense has gone through some suerpcharged modifications under co-head coach Garrett Tihada in recent seasons, but it still rates as an exotic machine that defenses can struggle against.
“We have a chance now. That’s all we needed,” senior linebacker James Gentile said. “We know Lahainaluna is very disciplined. They like to run misdirections left and right.”
Kaimuki’s aggressive defense has been effective. From defensive tackles Cain Asiata and Suliveti Nisa (a 6-foot-2, 302-pound sophomore) to D-ends Jahssaiah Maiava and Sisifo Lauvao, to linebackers Ronnie Akau and Torey Faimealelei to defensive backs like Daniel Nguyen and Jaren Feary, the Bulldogs have thrived on aggression defensively. The Lunas have a history of taking advantage of defenses that bite on fakes up the middle, jet sweeps and play-action tosses.
“Nobody out here that we’ve played runs anything like it,” said Gentile, who returned an interception for a TD in the playoff win over Nanakuli. “But if we do our jobs, play disciplined, fill our gaps, we have guys who want it. We’re hungry. Last week was a tough loss and we want to prove ourselves.”
“It’s going to be difficult, but it should be exciting,” Neves said. “We’re working hard this week. If we put our hearts into it, we can pull it off. “Coach has the confidence in us that makes us believe in ourselves. When we doubt ourselves, he’s there to pick us up.”
That confidence could make the difference against traditionally tough D-II powerhouses like Lahainaluna. Kaimuki’s ground attack has been pulverizing with a strong offensive line and 215-pound running back Billy Masima. The passing game has shown flashes of brilliance. Senior QB Keanu Pratt had a nice TD pass on the run against Radford in the first half.
“All it is, is confidence,” Neves said. “All we have to believe is we can throw the ball in the air just as much as we can run. We’re a well-rounded team. We just have to believe that we are and trust in our quarterback, and have him trust in us, and we’ve got each other.”
Traveling isn’t new to this year’s team. They went to Hanapepe Ballpark in August and edged Waimea in a preseason contest.
“I feel like coming off the loss, we’re more motivated,” Gentile said. “We have a great group of seniors who want to win. We want to keep moving forward and hopefully see Radford again. I don’t think being an underdog is anything we’re not used to. It’s another stepping stone that we’ve got to walk on and keep moving forward, and keep proving that our God is good enough to help us through this.”