By Paul Honda
Special teams, special forces.
All things being equal, Kahuku won the battle in special teams over Leilehua on Friday night, providing enough firepower for a 24-20 win and the Oahu Interscholastic Association Red Conference title.
From Cameron Mercado’s game-opening kickoff into the end zone — one of five touchbacks by the Red Raider specialist — to Leilehua’s first punt nearly being blocked, Kahuku was in big-play mode all night. Eventually, Johnny Tupola got through and snuffed a punt, which was recovered by Hauoli Jamora in the end zone.
That play came at a crucial time, with Kahuku down 20-10 and just 8:17 left to play. Coach Reggie Torres made special teams a point of emphasis in the week of preparation and the extra work paid off.
“Our kids earned this through their hard work, but we still have another goal,” Torres said. “We have to get right back to work starting Monday.”
Between Jamora, who has an insatiable appetite for destroying offensive protection schemes, and Mercado, Tupola and the rest of Kahuku’s defense plus special teams, it was the performance necessary to beat Leilehua quarterback Andrew Manley and douse his postseason magic. At least for one night.
Jamora finished with five sacks, including one during the Mules’ final possession, backing them up to the 6-yard line.
“The best thing is it brings us a big step closer to our big goal: the state championship,” Jamora said.
Kahuku’s eight sacks — Kona Schwenke had two of them — cost Leilehua 72 yards of offense. Considering that the Mules had 12 possessions in the game, that’s basically minus-6 yards and a loss of down on average, meaning Leilehua was at second and 16 from start to finish.
“Their offensive line was a little fatigued in the fourth quarter, but overall they’re really good, though,” Jamora said.
Rushing just three or four is pure luxury.
“They allowed us to drop a lot more guys into zone,” Torres added.
Leilehua’s starting points on those 12 possessions?
>> Mules 22-yard line, punt
>> Mules 20-yard line, fumble lost
>> Mules 20-yard line, punt
>> Mules 28-yard line, touchdown
>> Mules 20-yard line, interception
>> Red Raiders 10-yard line, touchdown
>> Mules 40-yard line, punt
>> Red Raiders 43-yard line, punt
>> Red Raiders 28-yard line, touchdown
>> Mules 6-yard line, punt blocked, Kahuku touchdown
>> Mules 20-yard line, loss on downs
>> Mules 20-yard line, time expired
Average starting point: Mules 34-yard line.
The damage by Kahuku’s defense came from all angles. Jamora finished with eight tackles. Schwenke, probably the fastest D-lineman in the state in pursuit, had six tackles (four for losses), but also had at least two hurries on Manley. That’s saying something since Manley reads pressure and keeps his feet moving in the pocket better than any prep quarterback I’ve seen in a long time.
Linebacker Ben Mamea was very solid, finishing with five solo tackles and a pass deflection. Keoni Tafuna had five tackles, as did defensive back Trayson Medeiros (five tackles). Andrews Crowell and Veteson Sauni had four tackles each. Sauni also racked up a sack.
The secondary was consistent. Freshman Kawehena Johnson had some outstanding one-on-one coverage.
Kahuku’s defense is a great big red wall, and it doesn’t stand there waiting for you. With Jamora and Schwenke at full tilt on every snap, it’s a wall that moves in on you and squishes everything in sight. Really, it’s remarkable that the Mules put up 20. What may be more remarkable is that Leilehua’s defense clamped down and held Kahuku’s offense to just 10 points until the final quarter. Factor in the touchdown by Kahuku’s special teams, and the Red Raider offense managed just 17 points against the Mules defensive unit.
For the Mules to score 20 points under those conditions is remarkable, and it explains to an extent how Kahuku has given up more than 14 points only once — to Mililani and its strong, scrambling quarterback, Trent McKinney.
Manley did his share of scrambling and was fairly effective, but with Kahuku rushing just three or four defenders all night, there was little room for big gains out of the legs of Leilehua’s aerial prince. Kahuku’s defense snuffed out anything Leilehua offered on the ground; the Mules longest running play was eight yards on Austin Schimdt’s lone carry. The Mules finished with minus-30 yards rushing on 24 attempts.
And yet … Manley’s last-gasp pass out of Leilehua’s end zone found its target — slotback Kyle Cruse Gombio, who had open field between the hashmarks but didn’t lateral and was corralled at the 40-yard line as time expired.
“There’s a lot of different points I was worried, especially the last play they threw,” Jamora said. “The receiver was open.”
Kahuku’s offense did not have it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it had the slight benefit of better field position than Leilehua.
>> Red Raiders 34-yard line, field goal
>> Mules 44-yard line, touchdown
>> Red Raiders 24-yard line, punt
>> Red Raiders 16-yard line, punt
>> Mules 46-yard line, interception
>> Red Raiders 21-yard line, half expired
>> Red Raiders 49-yard line, loss on downs
>> Red Raiders 25-yard line, punt
>> Red Raiders 20-yard line, punt partially blocked
>> Red Raiders 31-yard line, fumble lost
>> Red Raiders 48-yard line, touchdown
Average starting point: Red Raiders 32-yard line.
This list doesn’t include the punt block for the touchdown by Jamora. Leilehua clearly won the battle for field position in the second half. Over time, that will usually negate an elite defensive unit no matter how good it may be. That’s why Tupola’s punt block was huge. He came in almost uncontested, which is even more stunning.
“We had to go back to playing composed football,” said Torres, a longtime championship wrestling and judo coach. “We were getting too hyped. They were getting caught in the moment and missing assignments. It was just getting back to being composed.”
Charlie Tuaau, Nalu Enos and Ryan Pasoquen led Leilehua’s defense with seven tackles each. Darric Matsumiya had three tackles and a big fumble recovery, and Penitito Melei, a sophomore lineman, added four tackles. I liked Leilehua’s swarming mentality. They picked their poison well; Kahuku had only one play of more than 14 yards on the ground. The Mules were willing to give Kahuku quarterback Evan Moe the lane on option keepers, and Moe had a 24-yard run early. He also had a 13-yard pickup in the second half, but that was followed by a 14-yard gain that ended with a fumble lost.
If Moe learns to protect that ball on his option runs, Kahuku might call that play more often.
Mercado, by the way, had punts of 50 and 17 yards until the partial block. T.J. Tito actually did a better job with punts of 43 and 41 yards. It’s a good problem for Kahuku to have. Some teams barely have one choice.
Leilehua punter Fred Padrones, who had a huge game in the semifinals, had punts of 16, 48, 43 and 44 yards until the fateful block by Kahuku in the end zone.
All in all, it was an epic battle to the fullest. Leilehua didn’t play a bad game by any means. Manley had 245 passing yards on 23-for-35 accuracy and just one pick, and that turnover came after a receiver let the ball go through his hands and over to Kahuku’s secondary.
Kahuku has usually been able to come up with the right call at the right time, and when offensive coordinator Walter Santiago pushed the button that gave receiver Punga Vea a reverse pitch on the option, there was little Leilehua could do. How could they have known?
Kahuku does this very well: there’s no “test-marketing” of tricky gadget plays until they’re absolutely needed. Vea’s go-ahead touchdown is one example. Another is the double-pass play the Red Raiders used to beat Baldwin a few years back on the final play of a state semifinal. Kahuku had never shown any hint of that play during the season. There was nothing on tape to give scouts a chance to anticipate anything so off-the-radar.
When I see coaches go for 2-point conversions, particularly with a big lead, I wonder if they really have so many unique plays in the book. Is there anything still in the bag of tricks after a team goes for 2 more than twice in a game? Maybe. Usually not.
Remember this: Leilehua, the 2007 state champion with Manley as a sophomore quarterback, lost in the OIA semifinals last year. The Mules then beat Waianae to qualify for the state tourney.
They traveled in the first round and beat Baldwin, 34-15, came home and beat OIA champ Kahuku 17-10 in overtime to reach the state final.
This time, the Mules will have to travel again to play Baldwin, and the winner of that game will play top-seeded Kamehameha.
Kahuku has a well-earned first-round bye in the state tourney and will play in three weeks (Nov. 27) against Castle, Farrington or Baldwin. Castle and Farrington play tonight for third place in the OIA Red with a state berth at stake. The winner will play Honokaa on Nov. 20 at Kealakehe’s field.
Why Kealakehe? Though that field is 50 miles from Honokaa, it has spacious seating. Honokaa’s field has limited bleacher seating. Too bad. Honokaa’s home games have an ambiance and ferocity matched by few other communities.
The Star-Bulletin’s Billy Hull contributed to this report