There are numbers — one win and two losses in conference play — and then there is hope.
The Kamehameha Warriors are playing in a vacuum known as the Interscholastic League of Honolulu. There, even a .500 record is easy to overlook, even tough it would mean posting three wins over Top 10 teams. After a 35-3 loss to No. 2 Saint Louis on Saturday night at Aloha Stadium, Kamehameha’s sideline — the band, the cheerleaders, their spectators — all seemed subdued for most of the second half. It wasn’t enough that the Warriors sacked the nation’s top quarterback four times and made his life in the pocket miserable.
It certainly was enough to keep the riveted attention of Saint Louis’ longtime coach, Cal Lee.
“I give Kamehameha a lot of credit. They put a lot of pressure on our quarterback tonight, and that’s a fact,” he said.
So, that’s a huge plus. In the post-Doug Cosbie era, and in year one of the Abu Ma‘afala regime, an overlapping element is tremendous defense. Seniors Chase Rhinelander and Nathan Utu led the charge early, getting to Tua Tagovailoa for first-half sacks. Junior Jonah Welch had a sack not long after.
“We tried a lot of quick stuff, but they have a very quick front that’s very tough. I don’t think there’s a tougher front that we face in the OIA and the ILH,” Tagovailoa said.
That’s a lot coming from arguably the nation’s premier QB.
It didn’t feel like a 32-point win to Lee.
“I don’t know how good we did, holding them to 3 (points). It looks good,” he said.
Ma‘afala knows about the dynamic passing attack that Cosbie instilled. The single-game passing marks set first by Thomas Yam, then by Justice Young. It was eye candy, at least for Kamehameha fans, and perhaps made the losses in ILH play palatable.
But historically, Kamehameha’s best teams were able to run the ball effectively. Often with volume. Coupled with fantastic defense. Ma‘afala is doing this his way.
“The guys are buying in,” he said. “Every week, we’re getting better and they have a better understanding.”
Part of that embrace involves the ground and pound. Kanoa Shannon muscled his way to 93 yards on 20 carries, a good chunk of it out of double-tight end formations. The opening drive, at nearly 7 minutes, was all about midsection body blows right into the core of Saint Louis’ defense. It ended with a field goal instead of a touchdown, but moving the ball on the ground against the ILH’s first-place team, well, that’s something that even rival coaches like Kale Ane of Punahou always yearns for.
Kamehameha’s running backs combined for 119 yards on 25 carries, nearly 5 per attempt. Another huge plus, especially against one of the state’s best defenses.
Ma‘afala, 31, may be one of the state’s youngest head coaches, but his years coaching at the college level built a reservoir of patience.
“This wasn’t going to be a fast fix,” he said.
The Warriors are moving closer and closer to their identity, it seems. Fast and furious defensive pressure. Relentless ground-and-pound offense. Timely passing and catching — Jaykob Cabunoc had six receptions for 115 yards.
It’s coming together, maybe this year, maybe not. Imagine next season, if you will, when QB Thomas Yam and RB Shannon are seniors. When everyone from the varsity to the intermediate teams are more than one year deep into the heart and soul of the system. When Saint Louis won’t have the country’s best QB. When Punahou loses tremendous talent at QB, WR and some key defensive positions.
“We’re getting there,” Ma‘afala said. “We’re getting really close.”