When Vavae Tata arrived on the North Shore to become Kahuku’s head coach in the spring, Hirkley Latu didn’t know what to expect.
The Red Raiders safety who now plays linebacker was part of a special team a year ago, a team that was defense-heavy with an offense that struggled. They went far, but first-year head coach Lee Leslie returned to the mainland and Latu was nervous that whoever came in might ruin a good thing.
Latu’s worries were over within the first week, but now there is something quite tangible to show for it. Kahuku turned the tables on Mililani on Friday night with a 20-7 victory over the Trojans for the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship.
By “turn the tables,” we mean it was just one year ago when the Trojans topped the Red Raiders by that same 20-7 score in the OIA title game.
Is there a rivalry brewing? Is that rivalry already here, ready to last for a long, long time? The Aloha Stadium stands were pretty packed on both sides (not the end zones) in the orange and blue sections.
Several Kahuku fans commented on many Mililani fans leaving the stadium when there were still a few minutes left and wondering why.
Well, the answer is football is important in Mililani, but football is close to EVERYTHING in Kahuku. That’s the difference; not trying to incite anything here. Just the truth.
But, football is the subject and not fandom, so we’ll go back there.
There were many twists and turns in this one. Both teams had the good fortune to turn turnovers into touchdowns for a 7-7 tie in the fourth quarter.
Kahuku scored on its second possession of the opening quarter, when Harmon Brown, taking a direct snap in the wildcat formation, drove through the pile for a 26-yard TD after Pesa Lefau‘s fumble recovery of a muffed Trojans punt return.
It took until the 6:50 mark of the third quarter for Mililani to etch its own 7 on the scoreboard. Isaac Liva, a defensive end and a transfer from non-football Hanalani, did the trick, scooping up a fumble that ricocheted back into the Kahuku backfield (from the rugby-like pile that the Red Raiders run most of their offense with) and streaking 27 yards into the end zone.
But, wait. It’s time to interject what went wrong with Mililani’s high-powered offense on this championship night. Well, yes, you have the immense Kahuku defense, but it is worth mentioning that the Trojans were down to their third-string quarterback. Injured star QB McKenzie Milton (shoulder) was on the sideline throwing some passes in the first quarter, but he was wearing shorts and a gray hoodie under his No. 13 jersey and was not cleared to play.
Dillon Gabriel, the freshman backup, was up and down in his start. He didn’t last, though. Latu came in and put a clean hit on him that ended his season in the second quarter. Gabriel suffered a broken collarbone and in came Kaysen Higa.
Gabriel’s night was interesting. Three times on Mililani’s first drive — after a long Vavae Malepeai run put the Trojans inside the Kahuku 5 — he tried to throw a fade to the left corner of the end zone but overthrew Kalakaua Timoteo each time. You could see that Gabriel did not want to make a mistake by underthrowing it and that he just couldn’t find the correct range.
A little while later, before the injury, Gabriel’s dad, Garrett Gabriel of University of Hawaii fame, had his hands on his knees on the Mililani sideline and was looking straight down at the FieldTurf. Reading minds is not an exact science. Far from it, but it seemed like he was thinking: “So close in such a critical situation. How do you tell him how to take a little bit more of a chance? The line is so fine between touchdown and interception.”
Kahuku made a goal-line stand that inspired its fans big-time.
This narrative shall now move on to Bradlee Anae, the Kahuku defensive end who played with a fire that’s rare in this day and age. On every Mililani punt, he lined up in the middle along with Aaron Tapusoa and they both charged like madmen to get to the punter. The ploy did not result in a block, but it did make the Trojans punter rush every time.
And since we are singling out people who made a difference in the outcome, it’s a good idea to get the name Keala Santiago into this post. Everyone knows about his ability as a safety and a punt returner and those skills were on display all night. He finished with two interceptions and some punt-return bravery.
So, how did Kahuku get ahead, then?
Interestingly enough, it was offensive coordinator John Hao‘s backup quarterback Cameron Renaud — a rare dropback passer at Kahuku in these rugby-style days — who led the way.
Renaud, a junior, threw two midrange passes to Keakaula Kaniho to put the Red Raiders in field-goal range.
Next up in the getting-things-done category: Kekoa Sasaoka, the place-kicker who is a transfer from OIA rival Farrington. He stepped up and sailed a 42-yarder through the uprights for a 10-7 lead with just 9:51 left in the game.
Earlier, Sasaoka came up short on a 54-yarder with 2:49 left in the third quarter. Later, he was wide left on a 45-yarder with 5:32 remaining.
With 2:24 to go, somehow, for the first time since the first quarter, the holes opened up for Kahuku. Santiago did his part in spreading out the Mililani defense with his 21-yard gain on a reverse. Brown then went up the middle three straight times out of the (rugby!) wildcat before scoring on a 2-yard run for a 17-7 lead.
Sasaoka, after a Santiago interception, drilled a 38-yard field goal for the final scoring as time expired.
OK, so if it’s not evident, let us tell you how much Kahuku enjoyed this win. There were honks galore from cars leaving the parking lot, and Kahuku fans in the back of pickup trucks flying red Kahuku flags and shouting triumphantly.
They are pumped up about their undefeated Red Raiders (11-0), who in the minds of any other upcoming opponent statewide, represent a very scary thought.
Vavae Tata? The defensive mastermind jumped and shoulder-bumped three players on the defensive unit near the end of the game as they exited the field after a stop. Tata looked in their eyes as if to share that defensive spiritual/mystical bond and they followed through with the bump. Others coming off the field — maybe they had just been bruised or winded — were walking slower, so they just got a pat on the head from Tata.
It should be noted that Tata made it a point after the game to pat the head of Mililani defensive end Kaimana Padello, who never stops coming at you, no matter what. Padello was all over the field on Friday, making plays and sacks and tackles for loss and just being the general nuisance that he has proven to be.
“It just goes to show you that we can stop the run,” said Padello, who was dripping sweat after the postgame handshake line. “We’ve heard the talk about how we can’t stop the run after what happened (a 71-53 loss to Liberty, Nev.) in Vegas. Our defense did a heckuva job tonight. Yes, we gave up 20 points and it was a big loss, but we still have the state championship to play. It’s football. Whether you win or lose, it’s about how you come back and not how you suffer from it. We’re ready and hungry for the states.”
Rod York, the head coach of defending state champion Mililani (9-2), was a gentleman in defeat. He said: “Kahuku was the better team tonight. No excuses. I’m very proud of every single player who put the Trojans helmet on tonight. They represented very well. Sometimes, you lose on the scoreboard, but it’s how you show up in the game that counts. We’ll be back. Maybe we’ll see them (the Red Raiders) in the states.”
Kahuku will get a bye in the states next weekend. Mililani will play in the first round.
Milton, who reporters from Hawaii Prep World spoke with briefly after the game, may be back soon and it is well documented how he has the ability to make the Trojans offense much more dynamic. He is expected to return to practice with a doctor’s clearance this week, but it’s not certain if he can play next weekend in the first round of the states.
Mililani isn’t the only team with quarterback injuries. Kesi Ah Hoy, Kahuku’s starting quarterback, ran the wildcat on Friday, but went down with a left ankle inury in the third quarter. It was serious enough to keep him out the rest of the game, but it didn’t appear serious enough to keep him out for the rest of the season.
So, as we head to the Division I states, it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out — especially these two OIA teams and how they fare against the best the state has to offer — and possibly how they fare against each other in a rematch.