No. 5 Kahuku’s 27-7 win over No. 4 Campbell, on the same field where the Red Raiders lost three weeks earlier, had all the makings of a traditionally dominant defense making an elite-level comeback. It was, at the prep level, the rough equivalent of the Baltimore Ravens putting a muzzle on the New Orleans Saints.
“Our athletes are coming around, you know. They’re making plays. That’s what the heartbeat of our team is, our defense right now. They stepped up and the game came into our favor,” Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said.
Defense wins playoff games and it might win an OIA Open championship for the Red Raiders, who sealed a state-tourney berth and a spot in next week’s final. With two defenses plagued by injury this season, it was a couple of underclassmen who stepped up big for Kahuku.
Junior defensive back Peter John Mataira broke a 7-all tie with a scintillating 26-yard interception return to the house. He simply parked deep in the secondary, center field between the hashmarks. Campbell quarterback Kaniela Kalaola, sharp to this point, never saw him. Normally, it would’ve been a perfect post route throw.
“Campbell has some fast receivers. Our coaches wanted us to play off a little more,” Mataira said. “I did that on my own. Kind of playing around. We watched film for an hour every day. It feels great. We made a deal with our coach. We try to get two pick-sixes every game.”
Mataira’s return was followed, just 51 seconds later, by Ilaisa Fotu’s 41-yard pick-six. The linebacker sat in coverage near the left sideline. Again, Kalaola never saw him, and the ball hit the sophomore right in the numbers.
“Before that, my coach, Coach Sola (Soliai) told me it was coming,” said Fotu, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound sophomore. “I was surprised.”
Such is the advantage of losing to an opponent, studying hours of film, and returning to the scene of painful memories. Kahuku’s offense mustered 232 total yards, getting 113 tough yards on the ground via 36 carries — less than 3 yards per attempt — but controlled the tempo, and ate massive chunks of the clock in the second half as rain fell in Ewa Beach. Zealand Matagi led all rushers with 81 tough yards on 20 carries, including a game-sealing 26-yard jaunt in the final quarter.
Campbell’s offense, sans QB Krenston Kaipo (shoulder), finished with just 251 yards of total offense. In the second half, trailing 21-7, the Sabers completed just one pass for 4 yards to Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala.
In fact, Kahuku had 31 plays from scrimmage after intermission. Campbell had only 12 snaps, including a game-ending kneel.
The Sabers defense did its part, but only Big Red diehards who made the trek from the North Shore could have anticipated such a big turnaround by Kahuku’s opportunistic defense.
It was the kind of night, windy early on, then soggy from the second quarter on, that sapped the energy out of Campbell’s home crowd. When the teams met three weeks ago, it was a homecoming audience that was electric. This time, normally robust Saber supporters were stunningly silent.
Technically, it was a major change from the first meeting, when Kahuku employed a four-man rush. This time, they had three linemen, hands in the mud, and sometimes, eight in coverage.
“We were in a 34 raptor. Last time we were in a 42,” Mataira said. “We had the ‘backers help.”
The Red Raiders also gave 8-10 yards of cushion against Campbell’s speedsters.
“Campbell has great athletes. It’s no doubt that Titus (Mokiao-Atimalala) is one of the best wide receivers, and Poki‘i (Adkins-Kupukaa). They have a lot of weapons and Kawe (Johnson, Campbell’s offensive coordinator) does know how to use those weapons,” Carvalho said. “We had to make adjustments, mix it up a little, so Coach Sola did a great job tonight. Hat’s off to Coach Sola and the defensive staff.”
The four sacks came from defensive end Kamakanahiwahiwaokalani Wilkins, Kenai Liua (1.5), Zion Ah You and Joshua Singh. The constant pass rush, one that Kalaola was able to elude early on, took a toll.
The kicking game, especially with punter Ethan Erickson, and the almost unplayable squib kicks on kickoffs — a new twist — proved invaluable in a game that leaned heavily on field position. Defensive back Tevita Faleta came up with a deflection and a big hit that prevented a TD catch by Titus Mokiao-Atimalala in the first half.
Another senior, Duke Heffernan, came up with two big catches, including a 44-yard haul, to set up Kahuku’s first touchdown, tying the game.
It was also the power of an inspired Kahuku squad. The Red Raiders played for their team, their fans, their families, and for longtime coach Tommy Heffernan and Laie coaching icon Pele Leiataua. Both passed away this season.
“Coach (Heffernan) was a big part of our program. He did a lot for us. It seemed like he was our grandpa in a lot of ways,” Mataira said.
“You know, the loss of Coach Pele and the loss of Coach Tommy hit home for a lot of these players,” Carvalho said. “They were mentors, grandpas, fathers, idols. So to lose those coaches, our team wanted so much to honor their legacy, their legend, and keep playing in their name. Our breaks, we break with, ‘Uncle Tommy’. We just know that he’s still with us and a lot of our players still feel his spirit with us. The team is finally starting to come around. We had some adversities throughout the year, but their resiliency and what they were able to overcome shows their heart.”