JV call-up Jemell Vereen sparks Leilehua ground game

Leilehua's Jemell Vereen took a handoff from Leilehua quarterback Kalei Akagi during the first half against Aiea. Photo by Kat Wade/Special to the Star-Advertiser.

The Leilehua Mules aren’t over last week’s close loss to Moanalua.

They might never get over it, but that might be just fine. The 10th-ranked Mules bounced back on a rainy homecoming night with an emphasis on defense and the ground attack, limiting Aiea to 126 total yards in a 41-0 runaway at Hugh Yoshida Stadium.


The emergence of sophomore Jemell Vereen adds a valuable facet to the Mules’ quick-paced, no-huddle offense. Vereen and senior Damarion Smith combined for 161 rushing yards on just 16 carries in the first half as the mighty Mules rolled to a 34-0 lead. Add Kawela Kaluhiokalani and it’s a deep, hard-nosed group of running backs.

“Damarion’s more see the hole, hit the hole. Jemell is see the hole, hit the hole, but if there isn’t a hole, he’ll wait for it. He’s a patient runner,” Leilehua coach Mark Kurisu said after the Mules improved to 3-1 in OIA Division I play (4-1 overall). “I know they definitely both have the ability to catch. Jemell can make people miss while Damarion will just play small and find the right side of the tackler and bounce off, slide off. Damarion puts in the effort, high IQ guy.”

Vereen was on the JV team until making his varsity debut recently. He finished with 90 yards on seven carries, all in the first half. That included a 45-yard burst that set up a 2-yard TD run by QB Kekoa Turnagan (208 passing yards, three total TDs). The decision to pull Vereen up to varsity wasn’t a hard one.

“We just knew he had breakaway material as a running back. He just has that ability to breakaway, that James McGary effect. He runs tight, holds on to the rock. It was very cool to see both of them do well,” Kurisu said.

The offense finished with 238 rushing yards on 30 attempts. Smith finished with 69 yards on 11 carries before Kaluhiokalani finished the game (six attempts, 34 yards).

“I was happy for the O-line,” Kurisu added. “Our left tackle, Ali‘i Aspera (6-2, 290), a two-year (starter). Trayjan Jumawon (5-11, 265) is our left guard. Jason Flores (5-8, 225) is our first-year starter (at center). Adrian Filoi is at right guard, a two-year starter, and our right tackle is Terrance Lokan (6-4, 330), our big recruit.”

Aiea’s four-wide offense never got deeper than the Leilehua 29-yard line, when the visitors missed a field-goal try. The Mules hurled their third shutout of the season, adding to a list that includes Farrington and Kailua.

“These guys are playing at a high level. We always stress IQ, playing smart, not always trying to overpower,” Kurisu said. “Everything starts with our line.”

Kiaka Pio (6-1, 235), Jashawn Wakefield (6-2, 230) and Kalani Atwood (6-3, 240) are just juniors. Jaku Hanohano-Baptista (5-9, 240) is a senior. Gabriel Araki (5-9, 210) and LB Laakea Umiamaka (6-1, 200) bring energy as sophomore contributors.

The strange circumstances of the Leilehua-Moanalua game — and the loss — haven’t been easy to forget for Kurisu. Though the game was moved to Leilehua’s home field when Moanalua’s lights malfunctioned, it put a crimp into the coach’s plan.

“Last week’s game was one of those games, Moanalua came in and played well. It seemed like we didn’t want to be there, rightfully so. We had plans for that bye week, but this is part of the game. The lights don’t go on, you reschedule.”

When the game was postponed, the Mules lost two players to injury during practice on the following Monday.

“I get upset about that kind of stuff, but again, cannot help. Both teams had to make up that game,” Kurisu said.

Now, he and his staff will see who heals up and who might need more time to rest as Damien visits the Mules next weekend. More so because games against ILH teams like Damien and ‘Iolani do not count in the OIA standings.

“It’s our last home game. It’ll be a fun game, but we always put things into perspective,” Kurisu said. “We’d like to take care of business, but we always have to take care of our conference, the OIA.”


  1. IronSharpensIron September 7, 2019 8:47 am

    If leilehua could keep all of that Wahiawa talent home. They could make it into the open division and run with the big boys. It’s just sad when Mililani recruits all of their players. Back when Andrew manly and Bryant moniz them ran the OIA, Mules Pride was through the roof. Would love to see the central boys stay home and put on for their community.

  2. ??? September 7, 2019 10:28 am

    You’re right, Every community is dealing with this!

  3. Austin Chang September 7, 2019 1:50 pm

    Don’t forget about military too, they move in and they move out.

  4. Jacob Makaiwi September 12, 2019 1:08 am

    IronSharpensIron. Man you’re so right! I remember those days where Leilehua was killing it in football. And that’s practically why I still love Leilehua football. Although I graduated from Kamehameha and played football under an awesome coach in coach Stant, my heart was always bleeding Green and Gold. And it’s because of that pride Leilehua brought to me and other guys my age. Growing up playing football for Wahiawā Thunderbolts and other sports I remember watching the Leilehua Mules play and Hugh Yoshida stadium or the Aloha Stadium and I remember having so much pride in that team and in my community. It still carries on to today. As a fan it’s unfortunate that some Wahiawā boys will bring their talents to other schools, but that’s there choice and I believe there’s no moral right or wrong choice when it comes to that. I wish they stayed and played for the Green and Gold, but it’s alright Next man up! I believe in reasons but not excuses. Kahuku always has guys from their school doing it big at other schools (mostly the Big 3 ILH schools) but they find a way to compete. Red Raiders have reasons to complain of some of their talent leaving, but no excuses that will stop them from competing. That’s what the Mules gotta do, find a way to compete and win with what they got. And if they keep winning, that pride will come back and most likely the talented Wahiawa boys will stay and play for the Green and Gold. Go Mules!

  5. Jacob Makaiwi September 12, 2019 1:21 am

    Other than that, watching highlight of this RB, he runs tough! Grateful he got called up to Varsity! I believe he can do great things for this program this year and hopefully for the next two years as well. Hopefully Leilehua can continue to find some solid O-lineman to help this young man succeed in future seasons. And hopefully, hopefully this kid can help Leilehua in the Open Division if Leilehua can make it there soon. Personally I believe they could have a fair chance to replace Farrington, Waianae, or Kapolei, and maybe small kine chance replacing Campbell depending on the Sabers not having studs like the two brothers again. But Campbell seems to have a solid coaching staff and a large and growing enrollment down in the Ewa Plains and people outside wanting to play for them, so they’ll probably stay in the Open for a while. Go Mules!

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