Without a quarterback who had taken a snap at the varsity level, Kaiser coach Tim Seaman needs to rely on his defense, especially early in the season.
That group gave Kaiser all the offense it needed with two touchdowns as the Cougars beat Aiea for the first time in 23 years with a 21-7 victory on Friday night to open the season at Kaiser Stadium.
After playing to a 12-12 tie last year in Kaiser’s first game following a problematic 2017 campaign in which the Cougars suited up for only one varsity game, Kaiser won its season opener for just the second time since 2011.
The Cougars beat Aiea for the first time in their last 13 attempts after going 0-11-1 in the previous 12 meetings.
“The kids have a year under their belt. We have a lot of guys who played a significant amount last year,” Seaman said. “They know what it’s like to be in tough games like this. They know what it’s like to go against tough competition like Aiea and I think that that learning curve — they are starting to see that experience factor is evident.”
Kaiser dropped down to Division II last year and went 3-3 in OIA play, advancing to the OIA playoffs as the No. 4 seed before losing to Kaimuki.
With Nanakuli dropping down to D-II this year, the race for the four playoff spots is more difficult. Pearl City, which finished third in the league last season, opens regular-season play at Kaiser next week.
“I think we’re definitely better than we were last year,” said linebacker Cavin Lime, who had three of the Cougars’ 10 sacks against Aiea. “I think the main part of that is just this year we have everybody pushing each other. Everybody is fighting for their position so everyone is working harder every day.”
Kaiser scored all 21 points against Na Alii on defense and special teams.
Senior defensive back Ethan Domen recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a score and added a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown for the Cougars.
Lime and Brannon Tanaka had three sacks and Joseph Chin added two, including a strip-sack that was picked up by Cole Cadinha and returned 52 yards for a TD.
“We’re not all that big up front but we’ve got guys that can run,” Seaman said. “When you have guys that can run good things can happen.”
Aiea, which was also thin on its offensive line, had three plays all go for negative yardage to start the game.
Na Alii punted from inside its 10 when Domen came flying through to not only block the kick, but recover it for a TD.
Na Alii had a chance to take the lead in the third quarter in a 7-7 game and had the ball first-and-goal at the 1. After a tackle for loss by Lime pushed Aiea back to the 6, Domen stepped in front of a Kaysen Castillo pass and picked it off inside the end zone, taking it all the way back the other way.
“We were playing zone and I just basically sit back and I read the quarterback,” Domen said. “Quarterback likes to throw to number 12. That’s his key guy and he ran a slant and I was like ‘OK this is coming to me. This is my ball.’ I said I’m going to the house.”
Kaiser added another defensive score at the end of the third quarter to go up 21-7 and Aiea coach Wendell Say pulled Castillo early in the fourth quarter after he took a big hit from Lime on a fourth-and-1 carry and was stopped short.
“The main thing is his composure under pressure was pretty good considering he was getting hit on every play,” Say said. “I didn’t want to get him hurt. He worked hard in the offseason, bulked up, and that’s going to help us because he took a lot of shots.”
Castillo, who threw for 1,896 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, finished 15-for-42 for 172 yards and a touchdown with three picks.
Kaiser’s Dre Falls had two of the three interceptions.
“I give credit for our linemen sticking in there. It’s tough going both ways,” Say said. “Kaiser really wore them down.”
Aiea held Kaiser’s offense without a point. Senior Kolt Joseph and freshman Ethan Yoshino split time at QB with senior Brock Perriera away on a baseball trip.
Yoshino had the most success completing seven of 16 passes for 55 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us offensively,” Seaman said. “The pieces are there. It’s up to us to get the pieces in the right place and move it forward.”
Junior Mason Yoshino, Kaiser’s leading receiver last year as a sophomore, missed the game with an injury.