The boys from the Hukilau Cafe 7-man team are back home from Las Vegas with memories — and priceless winnings — for a lifetime.
The team, coached by Darren Johnson, went 9-1 in the Pylon Las Vegas 7v7 Tournament. The team was unbeaten in pool play, then reached the quarterfinals before falling 29-27 to eventual champion Ground Zero of Seattle, Wash., in Sunday’s championship bracket.
The exposure for all of the Hukilau Cafe players was invaluable. Two of them, quarterback Ephraim Tuliloa (Punahou) and Keala Santiago (Kahuku) received scholarship offers from UNLV after the tourney, according to Johnson. The offers are believed to be the first for each player.
Tuliloa, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior, was a third-team all-state selection last fall. He passed for 1,991 yards and 20 touchdowns in 10 games, completing 119 of 178 attempts with just three interceptions. He also rushed 28 times for 153 yards two TDs.
Santiago, a 6-foot, 180-pound junior, was a first-team selection as a safety and was one of the top kick returners in the state.
“Ephraim played big, for real. Keala played outstanding,” said Johnson, formerly of Kailua (head coach) and Kahuku (assistant coach). “Our Kamehameha kids, everybody played shutdown football.”
Hukilau’s defense threw three shutouts in a tourney featuring many of the West Coast’s finest prospects.
There was a mix-up in the seeding after pool play, but the team didn’t let it alter their focus.
“They made a mistake. We were 3-0 in our pool, but they somehow had us as 0-3,” Johnson said. “So we had a harder route, but it was worth it. We didn’t complain. We just played everybody. Every one of our games, we drew the crowd. We played good, clean football. Our kids didn’t talk (trash). The Pylon people were on it.”
Johnson added that officials from the Best of the West tournament invited Hukilau Cafe to their event.
“But everything costs money,” Johnson said. “It’s an invite-only tournament, so it’s nice to be wanted.”
Members of the Hukilau Cafe team are: Chyson Bo, Stokes Botelho, Koolau Feltmen, Kekaula Kaniho, Laakea Look, Randolph Manewa, Kumoku Noa, Royce Pao, Santiago, Draeton Thompson, Tuliloa and Isaiah Tufaga.
Assistant coaches are Jarrett Kaniho, Keala Santiago Sr. and Wes Tufaga.
According to USA Today, the event — now in its eighth year — requires a $1,000 entry fee and has notable past participants that include eight first-round NFL draft picks. There are 13 players who were drafted in 2014 and participated in the 7v7.
Johnson’s son, former all-state defensive player of the year Kawe Johnson, started the trail by participating in the event with a mainland team years ago. After that, the coach decided to take an all-Hawaii team to the tourney, and it has not stopped since.
He credited former Kahuku and BYU player Tevita Ofahengaue for helping the team.