Kahuku coach Lee Leslie was beaming with pride when he watched his boys being honored during Wednesday’s signing day assembly at the school gym.
The coach, who came over from Idaho a year ago, would be the first one to say how good of a job former coach Reggie Torres did with those boys.
And now they’re his boys, and they’re part of the reason he’s back for a second year to coach the Red Raiders.
Even though Salanoa-Alo Wily, Pena Fitisemanu, Alohi Gilman, Soli Afalava, and Tuli Wily-Matagi are all off to Division I colleges next season, Leslie will always remember them as the first “Big Red” class he coached.
The coach is staying at Kahuku for a second season despite not being with his wife, who is still in Idaho, for long periods of time.
Why? Well, anyone who has spent time around these humble kids with huge hearts would understand.
This reporter spent a bit of time with those five boys on Wednesday, trying to corral them for a Hawaii Prep World photo. It took a long while. What do you expect when there are aunties, grandmothers, grandpas, girlfriends, friends, brothers, sisters and the whole student body in attendance? Lots and lots of photo ops.
Poor Afalava. He was the only one of the five who didn’t have a cap for his chosen school. The only reason Wily had one is because, he said, “My grandma bought me one.”
They were decked with lei around their necks, deep, like on graduation day.
And this was graduation day. Leslie said goodbye, in a sense, knowing that these are the rocks that his program — if he decides to stay for the long haul, and there are no guarantees — is built on.
My guess is every single one of those Kahuku underclassmen who will be back for Leslie’s second year at the helm looks up to those five who hope to light the Kahuku candle elsewhere.
How can it not be?
Wily, who Leslie said embodies all that being a Kahuku Red Raider means, is going to UNLV as a defensive lineman and running back.
He’s going there with his “blood brother,” Afalava, who will be a strong safety.
Fitisemanu, who plowed over people as a blocking fullback and a running fullback, will play that position as a preferred walk-on with Utah. He will also convert to linebacker from his customary spot on the defensive line.
Wily-Matagi, who showed brilliance at times and plenty of leadership at quarterback, will be a 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end at Oregon State, a school that appears to be serious about being a year-in and year-out contender.
Gilman, an aggressive and wily cornerback, decided he wants to get in the way of D-I receivers way over in Annapolis, Md., under the tutelage of Laie’s own Ken Niumatalolo, the Navy head coach.
Not one of these five kids has an ounce of cockiness. They might stare you down if you are on the opposite side of the ball. They might hit you hard and knock the wind out of you. But they’re not going to do it with that “in your face” attitude.
Through the years with Torres and now Leslie, they’ve been taught what sportsmanship means. They nearly made it to the state final with a 3 yards and a cloud of Kahuku dirt mentality. Two long field goals by Jet Toner of Punahou ended that in a 13-10 semifinal game that went down to the wire.
And, suffice it to say, that style is not Leslie’s usual M.O. He wants to run the fancy-dancy offenses they’re running all over the country these days. He’s had tons of success with it. And he will run it, but installing it will take time and development.
I recall meeting each one of these five for the first (or second) time.
Afalava was a junior stud running back and he was hurt. I spoke with him on the sideline, where he revealed to me that he wanted to be back the next week while coach Torres said later it would be more than a month.
Then, during his senior season, he was limping all over the place on practice days, but on game days, he was making hard-hitting tackles, saying that he prefers defense over offense, which in some locales is a rarity but not in this tight-knit North Shore community.
After watching Wily run all over Castle in the second half of what had been a close game before the break, I wondered, “Who is going to tackle this guy? Ever?”
Well, it turned out that Wily was more valuable on defense and didn’t get as many touches as he would have had the Red Raiders defense been stacked without him.
Then, after a 21-14 razor-close win over Leilehua, when the Red Raiders offense was limited to something like 32 total yards, I told Wily about the dismal number and he had no idea. All he knew was that Keala Santiago, a junior, ran back two kicks for TDs, and the Kahuku defense held high-scoring Leilehua to 14 points. And they won. End of story.
I met Gilman at practice during the postseason and told him that I saw him get beat by a receiver early in the season. He was not offended. He knew that it was a growing, learning process and that he was now fully confident in his ability to stay with any receiver.
At the signing ceremony on Wednesday, I met Gilman’s dad, and I told him of seeing Alohi get beat. The dad said, “But he didn’t get beat again all season.”
I do not doubt that.
Then there’s Fitisemanu, who I spoke to after the state first-round comeback win over Hilo, when it was obvious that he was opening huge holes for Wily.
But I got to know him a little better on Wednesday (while waiting eons to take that photo!!), saying, “Do you guys ever play pickup football, because if you do, I’m in.”
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, we do. All the time. We actually play rugby more.”
“OK, bud, give me a call, just don’t hurt me,” I said.
He’s going to Utah as a preferred walk-on. The scholarship players will know who he is soon enough.
The first real conversation I had with Wily-Matagi came during the 20-7 OIA championship game loss to Mililani. It was in the second half and he had been taken out with an injury. I asked him if he had a concussion and he said, “Yes.”
It was a big loss for the Red Raiders, who were without their leader for the Hilo game the very next week.
Speaking of the Hilo game, Kahuku was behind 10-0 at the half. I was covering a volleyball game elsewhere and made it to Aloha Stadium just as the fourth quarter was starting. The radio announcers I heard in the car were saying that it could be the biggest upset ever, or something like that.
As I walked through the gate, I saw Wily on the jumbo screen bulling through tacklers for a touchdown. It was the start of 20 unanswered points for a 20-10 victory.
It is an image I will never forget. Hilo was dominating Kahuku, but not in the fourth quarter.
And, let’s go back to the Mililani game for a minute. If you caught the Trojans offense last fall you would know that holding them to 20 points was, well, not a victory, but somewhat of an accomplishment.
And Leslie was very proud of that defense and of that team, which went 9-3 and the three losses were by a combined 17 points.
There’s only one more thing you need to know about Lee Leslie. As a man, and probably as a coach, he is no better or worse than Reggie Torres, who is one of the more upstanding, gentlemanly and successful coaches around.
One thing was clear, however, last fall. Those players respect him.
While interviewing Leslie for an upcoming playoff game at the very tail-end of a practice, the players, without Leslie calling them over, all came running up to within 15 feet of him and waited quietly for his parting words for the day.
Try getting four kids of any age to line up in a straight line these days and see what you get.
For these Kahuku kids, what the coach says means something, and that goes for Leslie as well as Torres before him. Sounds like the 1950s, right? Well, maybe that’s why they’re still struggling to install an intricate passing game.