Down two starting wide receivers and a starting quarterback, Aiea coach Wendell Say never had a doubt.
All he knew was that his inexperienced skill-position guys had what it took, even in the heat of an early-evening battle in the center of Nanakuli Valley. Aiea withstood the Golden Hawks’ early momentum, then fought off a furious rally and returned home with a precious 27-14 victory to start the OIA Division I football season on Friday night.
With Kobe Kato sitting out the first half — he was on a baseball trip last week — Na Alii turned to backup quarterback Zelius Maae-Liupaono, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound senior southpaw. His first throw had a bit of a flutter to it, but for the rest of the half he was in command. Aiea’s four-wide, shotgun attack was in no-huddle mode most of the the first 24 minutes, and that constant pressure took a toll on Nanakuli.
Maae-Liupaono guided the visitors to two first-half scoring drives, and nearly a third. They led 14-6 at the half before Kato took the reins and engineered two scoring drives of his own. Both quarterbacks were accurate and relatively risk-adverse, with the exception of a bobbled snap by Maae-Liupaono on a slightly bizarre, slightly fun double-trips, three-interior linemen formation by Aiea late in the first half.
Then there was the superlative consistency and craftsmanship of Ty Matsunami (two TD hauls) and Sam Okamoto. In all, Aiea started one junior, two sophomores and a freshman at the wide and slot receiver spots. Matsunami (5-6, 140) lined up at wideout, and Okamoto (5-7, 150). Both are juniors.
“I love these guys, my little pony backs or whatever you call them,” Say said. “These little guys hang on to the ball, they’re not afraid. They have good football sense. Those guys know football. They’re ready.”
Kato was enthused about his teammates regardless of roles.
“They’re all underclassmen. We know we can do it. We’ve all got to keep believing and push every week. Our O-line missed a few assignments, but (overall) they did really well,” he said. “We didn’t show it in previous weeks, but we moved the ball the way we wanted to. This week, we actually showed we can do it if we execute our blocks.”
“I’m surprised. They surprised me well,” Say said of the offensive line. “Still lots of room to get better.”
Maae-Liupaono was especially clutch.
We worked on (out routes) every day at practice, all day every day. Zelius is on it every day,” Kato said. “He’s a captain and a leader.”
“Z could be a starter. Kobe’s got to win back the job,” Say said. “They give each other competition. We expect a lot from Kobe and they push each other.”