The year 2017 may be too recent to evoke feelings of nostalgia, but not if you’re a follower of Kahuku football.
On Saturday night at Aloha Stadium, the Red Raiders downed Mililani 7-3 to win the OIA Open Division title, making it just two years since their last league title.
To some, that gap felt like an eternity.
“We were thinking about that this whole week, that it’s actually been a while,” said cornerback Kaonohi Kaniho, who was a sophomore on the 2017 team. “Glad to be back at the top of the OIA, but now it’s on to states.”
In order to reclaim OIA supremacy, Kahuku had to defeat a Trojans squad that’s had its number for the last two seasons with a 3-0 mark. The most recent matchup between the teams heading into Saturday was a 32-0 win for Mililani on Aug. 16.
Since then, Kahuku has gone 7-2, with its only losses coming to ILH powers Punahou and Saint Louis.
There seems to have been a correlation between Kahuku’s commitment to its throwback offense and winning ballgames. But to coach Sterling Carvalho, the biggest change went beyond the X’s and O’s.
“Our guys started to believe. They believed that they were getting better each and every week, from defense to special teams, our offense hung in there,” Carvalho said. “We made turnovers offensively (on Saturday), but our defense and special teams, they rose up and they did great.”
Kahuku’s defense was smothering Mililani all night long, holding it to 100 yards. Kaniho finished with an interception on defense to add to the Trojans’ misery.
No play was bigger than Kelsyn Tangaro-Kanoa’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that followed Kaulana Navares’ 24-yard field goal with 5:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“When I was getting the ball, all I could think was just ‘I’m going to the end zone,’” said Tangaro-Kanoa, who broke at least seven tackles on the play.
Mililani went three-and-out on its ensuing possession and punted with 5:01 remaining and all three of its timeouts. The Trojans never got the ball back.
Running back Zealand Matagi has been Kahuku’s horse in the backfield all season. On Saturday, he finished with 78 yards on 21 carries, but none were more important than the ones that ground down the Mililani defense in the closing minutes.
“It’s a humbling experience. It shows how hard we’ve worked and all the stuff we’ve been through leads to this,” he said. “We really didn’t have anything to lose so we just gave it our all on the field. I know we have things we have to work on but through it all, pretty happy with the outcome.”
After the game, Kahuku was handed its championship hardware, sang its alma mater and did a spirited haka for the Red Raider faithful in attendance. It felt like an all too familiar scene from years past. It felt like old times. The whole aesthetic begged the question: Is Kahuku football back?
“We’ve always been here,” Kaniho said simply. “It was just a matter of finding ourselves.”
Perhaps the only thing lacking from the Kahuku football experience at Aloha Stadium on Saturday was the size of its crowd. Kaniho is confident that will change on Nov. 22, when the Red Raiders take on Campbell in the HHSAA Open Division state semifinals.
“Hopefully it’s packed,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it will be. Can’t wait for that.”