(Here’s the original version of a feature on Pac-Five’s football team — the defense. This piece was too long for the print edition.)
For a lot of Division II football programs, things happen in cycles.
Just a couple of years ago, Pac-Five knew this well. P.J. Minaya was an elusive playmaker at quarterback, and a talented group of receivers and running backs allowed the Wolfpack to score a lot of points.
This fall, the pendulum of strength has swung over to the Wolfpack defense. In three games, Pac-Five has three wins, and not a single opponent has scored a point. Not Lahainaluna. Not Castle. Not Kapolei.
“We’re not satisfied, no way,” nose guard Ben Keller said. “We want to keep improving.”
With the string of shutouts and a 3-0 nonconference record, attention is bound to come the ‘Pack’s way, which is why coach Kip Botelho is cautious. The ups and downs of a long season have to be regulated emotionally. With a major test against Saint Louis on Friday, Pac-Five’s conservative, defense-first mantra could fare well. It could also struggle, especially since Saint Louis lost to Kamehameha last weekend.
As a unit, the ‘Pack defense is stellar against the run. Saint Louis will be their first test against a pass-heavy offense.
But that’s on Friday. Yesterday morning, while most hard-working folks were still in bed enjoying Labor Day, the Wolfpack were on the grass at Mid-Pacific Institute, toiling away in the sun. They capped the practice — their first since Friday after Botelho gave them a weekend off — with a version of UH’s “scout bowl.” Starters stood on the sidelines cheering and hollering as the team’s sophomores and freshmen had a brief, intense offense-versus-defense scrimmage.
One botched play by the offense led to a swarm of defenders chasing a loose football. Judging by the starting defense’s reaction on the sideline, it could’ve been a state final. Or an old-school Prep Bowl.
Twenty-six years have passed since Pac-Five was unofficially crowned state champion. Winning the Prep Bowl, the matchup between Interscholastic League of Honolulu and Oahu Interscholastic Association title winners, brought prominence to the Wolfpack in 1982 and again in ’85. Junior Pale, a two-sport standout, has been the defensive coordinator at Pac-Five for a decade now. He was a sophomore on the ’82 squad that stunned the prep football world.
With a core of returnees and an infusion of speed at linebacker, Pale and the defensive coaches have tweaked and fine-tuned the old with the new. Pac-Five lines up in a 3-4, but can switch to a 4-3 or 4-4 without hesitation.
Titus Failauga, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, is one of the jewels of the defense. The former Word of Life lineman is quick — he also plays basketball for Mid-Pacific — and lines up on the right side.
“We have more speed and we execute better than last year,” Failauga said. “All our boys want to play defense. Defense wins games.”
In the trenches, Keller takes on double and triple teams. Pale, who played the same position, considers Keller an often overlooked key to the defense’s success.
The defensive co-captains and other starters note one common thread about Pale: attention to detail. Every day, it never fails. Coach Pale is right on top of his defense, a seasoned jeweler with his scope, scanning his diamonds for the slightest bit of tarnish or defect. Often enough, a missed assignment raises his ire and the defense hears about it. Yesterday, it was the unit’s star, Failaunga, who got the brunt of Pale’s attention.
“Coach always tells us, ‘Don’t play your own games,’ ” said Failaunga, who has a scholarship offer from Hawaii.
“It’s assignment and alignment,” defensive end Brett Kanoa added.
“It’s repetition, assignment, assignment because Sometimes they get lazy and they don’t do their job and there’s a big hole right there. That’s why I preach to them every day. We don’t ask much, just do your assignments. I don’t care if they don’t want to hear it. They’re going to hear it.”
Pale puts trust in his position coaches, including up front on the D-line.
“Coach Joe Onosai, I pretty much give him the free hand to do anything. (Failaunga) will play anywhere, he’s humble, real coachable, so we move him around,” Pale said.
“Ben (Keller) is the nose, with the 3, you have to have a good nose guard. So far, he’s doing a good job. The ILH is a very tough league, so hopefully he can keep up.”
Kanoa is at left defensive end with run support from outside linebacker Joshua Donovan and inside ‘backers Cyprus Fesili and Sosiua Havea. Another 6-4 defender, Drew Wilson, is the weakside ‘backer behind Failauga.
“There’s no strategy, it just works out that way. We just play simple, basic defensive football, try and cover the gaps, do our responsibilities and make plays.
Mathew Ohtani and Robert Johnson are the corners, with Drew Viena and Nick Kwon at safety. Viena, a 5-11 two-sport athlete, returned a pick 60 yards against Castle.
“We take pride in our defense,” Viena said. “We feel we shouldn’t give up any touchdowns if we all do our assignments.”
He’ll see many familiar faces this week; he transferred from Saint Louis to Academy of the Pacific after his sophomore year. He was a wide receiver at Saint Louis.
Beyond that, the ‘Pack have some depth, but nothing like the 80- and 90-man rosters at ILH powerhouse programs. So, they keep things simple.
“Any defensive coach doesn’t want to give up a big play,” Pale said. “I learned from coaches before me — Coach Charlie (Miyashiro), Coach Joe Francis, Coach Bo (Don Botelho) was the main one. Coach Kip taught me a lot.
For Kip Botelho, it’s been a period of adjustment.
“We’re going to use our personnel strengths. I would love to spread ’em out and wing it every play, but we don’t have those guys. If the other team doesn’t score, we have a chance to win,” he said.
As Pac-Five’s young offense, with help from experienced senior quarterback Jack Foster, continues to mature, the defense and special teams will carry the load.
“Like anything, offense takes time,” Botelho said. “I don’t want to say anything that’s going to come back to haunt me, but yeah, our defense is playing well. The competition gets better every week. The Kapolei game, that was a good team victory. Both sides of the ball and special teams played well, but we’re still untested in the secondary. We haven’t seen any full-on passing teams or speed like the ILH has.”
Teams have switched out their best pass protectors against Failauga, who has four sacks. Castle put lineman Justin Telefoni on the edge against Failauga, who had two sacks.
“You expect your big players to step up in big-time games, and this is one of them,” Botelho said. “We’re expecting them to play well. It’s a good test to see where we really are.”
Keller, the nose guard in the middle of traffic, just wants to see a focused effort regardless of hype and hoopla.
“It’s all about discipline. I want our team to win the championship,” he said. “But I also would rather not see us get big-headed.”
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser