Boy, have times changed.
Cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing coaches long ago (or so we’ve heard) used to say things in a gruff voice, like “All we need is 3 yards every carry and we get a first down every four downs.”
Young’uns’ eyes would sparkle as they admired the plain, brutal logic of that thinking and they would immediately be full-fledged, card-carrying members of that plan.
Until, sometimes, they realize it’s easier said than done. For many, it would be three-and-out. For others, it was that old proverbial “three yards and a cloud of dust” like Woody Hayes at Ohio State all the way to the high school league championship in Footballtown U.S.A.
Footballtown U.S.A., folks, is right here in Kahuku, a place that’s not easy to get to — more than an hour from Honolulu — but it is as if the hands of time have moved backward a bit to before passing nearly every down was on the consciousness of most football coaches. But, picture it. TV trucks coming here to do a special documentary on the Red Raiders’ football team. Or a reality show. Find the right producer and it could be a hit.
The documentary, if it was ever done, would show the packed mauka side of Aloha Stadium, with tomahawk-chopping fans in sync with the music by the band. And then a quick cut to that audacious haka the players did before dominating Saint Louis 39-14 in the state Division I championship game Friday night.
It cost them 15 yards, but it was 15 yards well worth it. As they say often around the North Shore hamlet: “Boom Kanani!”
The bigger boom was coming. This team refused to believe that any other team was better. Red Raiders fans may have wondered why Kahuku (13-0) was never chosen to be the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s top-ranked team this season — until the new poll comes out this week after the fact that they are the undisputed top team.
The players themselves may have wondered the same thing, but they never said anything about it all season.
To a man, no player or coach interviewed after Friday’s game came remotely close to saying something like, “Nobody believed in us.”
You sense two possibilities for this.
First of all, so many North Shore fans believe in the players and the team that they are insulated from the outside nonbelievers. Oh, and there were many nonbelievers. Raise your hand if you thought Saint Louis’ offense would have its way. Chances are that even if you truly didn’t think Tua Tagovailoa would pass the Crusaders to the title, you knew it was still quite possible. Ahh, but Kahuku first-year head coach Vavae Tata had some surprises in store for us on that final night, didn’t he? Rush the quarterback with abandon!!! More than abandon, if that’s possible. As the old saying goes, cut the head off the snake and the rest of it dies. Tua was reduced to a man looking for a safe haven. He pretty much had no time to make the plays he usually makes.
And the second possibility for the Kahuku players not bringing up the “nobody believed in us” thing: Coach Tata’s message must have been crystal clear — and loud and said over and over again. (And this last part is only a guess of what he might have said) — Do not even think about what others who are not part of this team think or say. They are not part of this team. It’s what we do and say that matters. Nobody else. You focus on what you can do. Not what others say you can or cannot do.
Or something close to those lines. It would be a surprise if he didn’t say something like that to them.
Many of the Red Raiders, as the season got close to the end, liked to say, “We do what we do.”
And it was never a secret. Run the ball and play defense. Many other stories written about the title-clinching game focused on Kahuku’s stifling defense. This one will get a bit more into what the offense did to finish off an undefeated season.
Kesi Ah-Hoy, who converted from running back to a wildcat-style quarterback, hammered away behind a solid offensive line. And then the junior did it again and again and again.
Somehow, in the semifinals against Waianae, Ah-Hoy did not make it into the end zone. But on Friday against Saint Louis, in a supercharged performance, he scored three times with amazing second and third efforts.
“I love blocking for that guy,” said senior center and captain Jed Heffernan. “He’s a real humble leader.”
In the team’s three biggest games of the season: Ah-Hoy rushed 15 times for 42 yards before getting hurt in the 20-7 OIA championship victory over Mililani; 40 times for 142 in the state semifinals; and 30 times for 103 yards on Friday night.
“Kesi is a born leader,” Red Raiders offensive coordinator John Hao said Friday. “He was awesome tonight. He sustained our drives and moved the chains and scored. He understands the game of numbers and angles and leverage.”
Add up Ah-Hoy’s stats from the last three games and you get 85 carries for 287 yards. That’s 3.38 yards per carry. Sound familiar? Yup, but Tata wears a baseball cap and he isn’t old, and he may as well say, “3 yards and a burst of (Fieldturf cushion) rubber granules, baby!”
And he does say it, but not in those exact words. “Running the ball is in our DNA” is something he said recently.
Ah-Hoy gets his inspiration from his teammates.
“We believed in each other. The offensive line is where it started and the offensive line is where it ended. They give me the vibe to keep on going. Even the defense. They make me excited to keep on going and forget how I’m feeling (tired).”
Tata turned credit for the victory in his first season as coach toward the players.
“I want to recognize my student-athletes,” Tata said on his way to the bus up the North end zone tunnel after Friday’s game. “They worked their tails off, from spring ball all through the long season.”
The coach made somewhat of a pitch a bit later in the postgame interview.
“We all know Kahuku has student-athletes and that they’re all over the place. They go to Saint Louis, Kamehameha and Punahou,” he said. “Please, stay home.”
Paul Honda of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii Prep World asked Tata point blank on Friday if he would, if offered, accept a position as an assistant with the University of Hawaii when a new head coach is hired.
Tata’s answer was noncommittal. He said he wanted to go home and relish what his Kahuku boys accomplished.
But, if anyone on the North Shore is worried, he is still thinking about the future of football in Kahuku.
“I went to Hauula (youth football practice) and my eyes welled up and I started to cry when I saw them,” he said. “They are the next generation. They want to be playing football for Kahuku and be part of what we’re building.”
The celebration on the North Shore will soon lead to offseason workouts for the underclassmen.
Heffernan, who was injured and missed the Red Raiders’ run to the state semis last year, was overjoyed to help get it done in his senior year
“This is the most awesomest thing,” he said. “This will be the most memorable thing for me — to get this far and finally capitalize and hold the trophy. It means so much to have met the challenge. It’s indescribable.”
Added defensive back Stokes Botelho, who intercepted two Tagovailoa passes in the final, “We’re sending the seniors off with this win. Maybe we’ll get it next year, too.”
Most carries in back-to-back state-tournament games
>> Kesi Ah-Hoy, Kahuku, 40-30——70
>> Jayson Rego, Kamehameha, 39-30——69
>> Ammon Baldomero, Iolani, 34-31——65
>> Aofaga Wily, Kahuku, 32-27——59
>> Harry Tuimaseve, Farrington, 27-29—56