There were plenty of fine victories for the Kailua Surfriders last year, as they went 7-3 to mark a complete turnaround from the winless year before.
But what happened Friday night at Alex Kane Stadium was special for an altogether different reason for coach Joseph Wong.
Kailua staged an improbable rally from down 21 points to stun No. 7 Mililani 34-28, keeping the Surfriders (3-3) right in the mix of the OIA Red standings with one game to play, vs. Windward rival Castle.
The win ensured the Surfriders a spot in the OIA playoffs, and it was right at the top of Wong’s favorite wins so far in his three-year coaching career. Mililani (4-2) had a four-game winning streak in the series snapped.
“I mean, the way that we won, yes,” the Kailua alumnus said outside the Surfriders’ locker room. “Because they battled adversity and came back. And to me that shows more than … last year we were ahead almost every game. And (tonight) they battled back and they won. So for now, it is (my favorite) for the way that they won. And the way that they fought, didn’t give up and stuck together, kept chipping away.”
Mililani opened the game with an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Andrew Valladares. Kaine Park added two 1-yard touchdown runs, and it was 21-0 midway through the second quarter.
Thankfully for Kailua, quarterback Mark Lagazo was just getting warmed up on what would be a career night (15-for-27, 224 yards, four touchdown passes and no interceptions). Lagazo, converted from running back because of an early-season injury to Keoni Serikawa, had three touchdown passes on the season before Friday.
Running back Kolo Hanawahine-Wong plunged in from the 1 in wildcat formation, then Mililani fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return — the first of five turnovers on the night. Lagazo parlayed it into a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Christian Mejia, and the Surfriders were alive and well going into halftime down 21-14.
A critical setback in the third quarter put Kailua on the ropes, however. The Surfriders were called for pass interference on an incomplete fourth-and-11 ball by Trojans quarterback Dillon Gabriel, and Mililani made the hosts pay with the fresh downs. Gabriel found Valladares on a 22-yard strike to go back up two touchdowns with 3:13 left in the period.
Then junior receiver Tanner Wright made his 6-foot-4 presence felt to open the fourth. Lagazo lobbed one up for him and, as the receiver fended off a Mililani DB, Wright came down with it for his first touchdown of the season. The extra point was wide left, however, influencing events to come at 28-20 Mililani.
The Trojans had an ill-timed three and out, their first of the game. But a great bounce resulted in a 59-yard punt — and Kailua had to start from its 1.
“Don’t give up. Keep working,” Wright said of the team’s mind-set during the game-long comeback.
The Surfriders got out of it, but when it seemed they had to kick it away from their 17, Hanawahine-Wong tore off a 28-yard gain on a fake punt. A penalty knocked Kailua back, but they made good on a fresh set of downs. In three plays, Lagazo found a streaking Wright in stride at midfield and Wright took it the rest of the way untouched, 67 yards.
“He made a play,” Lagazo said.
This being one of those nights of tested character, Kailua still needed more; the 2-point conversion pass to tie was no good and Mililani took over with 4:27 to play.
Kailua continued to make its own luck, however, as Trojans running back Darius Muasau went over 100 yards for the game with a 22-yard gain into Surfrider territory … but was gang tackled and had the ball punched out. Kailua’s Darius Martin recovered it on the hosts’ 33 with 3:28 to play.
“We’ve been preaching that, how we tackle, gang tackle,” Wong said. “I said, if one guy does what he’s supposed to do to stop the ball carrier, and nine or eight follow him, there’s a chance the turnover’s going to occur. Because we got the big fellas coming and everybody’s pulling at it. It’s just what we teach out here and they were a prime example of what we’ve been working on.
“In order to come back from 21, you have to create something.”
On the game’s deciding drive, Kailua had to convert a fourth and 6 from the 37. Lagazo threaded a ball to sophomore Solomon Farley in traffic over the middle for a clutch first down at midfield, and the two connected again on the next play to get it to the Trojans’ 39. An additional 15-yard penalty on Mililani suddenly had Kailua in fantastic shape at the 24.
Lagazo went incomplete twice, both balls close to being intercepted.
Then, magic. He went to the tight end Mejia in the dead center of the end zone, high enough where the 6-4 D-I prospect alone could get it. Mejia doubled his season touchdown total with his second TD grab and Kailua converted 2 points this time for good measure to go up six.
“I trust him a lot, so I gave him a chance again,” Lagazo said of Mejia.
Mililani had a final chance. It started from its 40 with a little over a minute left. Gabriel hit Ryan Chang for a 9-yard pickup on first down. But then Kailua brought the blitz, and Kalama Keeno and John Sniffen combined to sack Gabriel for the first time of the night, a 9-yard loss. Facing third and 10, Gabriel went incomplete on a short slant pass. Then, with everything on the line, his deep heave into double coverage was batted down.
In front of its celebrating crowd, Kailua took over on downs and took a knee. The comeback was complete.
“Hat’s off to Mililani too,” Wong said. “They fought all the way to the end. They’re a good team. It’s just, tonight was our night. Sometimes you need it to bounce your way.”