Make no mistake: The ‘Iolani Raiders know the challenge that lies ahead.
Playing a Division I schedule against Kamehameha, Punahou and Saint Louis in back-to-back weeks is the toughest task any team in the state faces.
It’s the result of a decade of dominating Division II play, winning eight D-II state titles and 11 consecutive ILH D-II championships.
Last season’s first run against the ILH behemoths resulted in an 0-6 record, but not without some prideful results. There was an 11-point loss to eventual league champion Saint Louis and a 12-point loss to four-time reigning ILH champion Punahou. Maybe the most impressive game was the season finale against Kamehameha. The Warriors throttled ‘Iolani 63-21 less than a month earlier but had to survive a school-record 485 passing yards from then-sophomore QB Tai-John Mizutani to pull out a 39-24 win.
Their chances of winning the league this year might be slim, but the Raiders understand the situation they find themselves in. Playing in more games like the ones mentioned above instead of the occasional 40-point blowouts are what the team is focused on this summer.
“I know it’s going to be tough (playing) in D-I and it was a good experience last year,” senior running back KJ Pascua said Saturday. “I want every game to feel like we have a chance to win or are in the running to win. Even if we lose the game, as long as we’re pushing the other team, those games will make me happy.”
Teams don’t take ‘Iolani for granted. Waianae coach Walter Young couldn’t wait for his team to scrimmage the Raiders on Saturday, saying last week it would be the best thing for his Seariders team to experience.
“They’re going to get knocked around by guys a lot smaller than them,” Young said. “That’ll be a good lesson (for us).”
For ‘Iolani, Pascua, a three-year starter at running back, will again team up with Mizutani in the backfield. Mizutani, a junior, is now 6-foot-2 and is coming off a sophomore year in which he set the ILH Division I single-game passing record. He threw for 1,855 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games completing 56 percent (180-for-321) of his passes.
He was locked in a three-way battle for the starting spot and eventually won the job heading into ILH’s league opener against Punahou.
“Last year I was still fighting for the position through the third game of the year so this year I feel it’s a little more of my team this year and I can take more control of the reigns on offense,” Mizutani said. “Definitely this year I feel like I have to be more of a vocal leader and lead off the field as well.”
The big question mark for the Raiders this season is their offensive line. Senior Saiaiga Fautanu (5-9, 210) is the only returning starter and will protect Mizutani’s blind side. Junior Charles Kam (6-2, 248) is slated as the other starting tackle with guards Josiah Wataru (5-10, 223) and Jacob Gonzaga (5-9, 216) lined up next to center Tanner Kai (5-9, 210).
‘Iolani might have to change up its offense a bit, relying even more on the passing game. That means Pascua, who has rushed for 1,464 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career, could see more time lining up at the slot and catching passes instead of taking handoffs behind the line of scrimmage.
“Freshman year I was pretty much just running the ball and now we’re running a lot more screens and getting me to the outside and I’ve got to get more practice reps at slot so I can catch the ball and give my team some more looks,” Pascua said. “Picking up blocks in the backfield and trying to get spots in open spaces is all stuff we’ve been working on.”
Mizutani is also hoping to get help in the passing game from junior receiver Justin Genovia, who Mizutani said didn’t play football last year to concentrate on basketball. Genovia went 80 yards for a touchdown in a scrimmage against Roosevelt and took a screen 70 yards for a score against Waianae.
“I’d say Geno is the one (receiver) who can create a lot of separation,” Mizutani said. “He’s shown he’s got a lot of ability and I’m excited to play with him.”
‘Iolani opens the season Saturday against Radford in a game that was moved to Aiea because the lights are not functioning properly at Radford’s new field. It also goes against the tradition of opening the season with the Father Bray Classic at Aloha Stadium. This year, ‘Iolani will host La Jolla Country Day from California for the annual Father Bray game at Kozuki Stadium on Aug. 27.