No. 1 Kahuku is a big favorite to beat unranked Leilehua in the Oahu Interscholastic Association quarterfinals Friday night.
But the best part about it for the Mules (4-5) is they have a lot to gain even if they lose. They have already qualified for next month’s state tournament, so what better way to go into the quarterfinals than against the top-ranked team in the state?
>> A victory would be a mammoth upset.
>> A loss? Well, that’s what everybody is expecting and with good reason. Kahuku rolled to a 49-15 win Aug. 12 in the conference opener.
Leilehua, in a sense, lucked out by drawing defending Division I state champion Kahuku in that Blue/Red crossover game. Any other team would have been easier to go against, but by playing the best, the Mules learned about where they stand.
So, now, when the Mules play the Red Raiders (7-1), they won’t be going in not knowing what to expect. They’ve been there. Ask any coach who plays a team twice. The second game is almost always tougher. That may not be the case in this matchup because Kahuku has had the same amount of time and the approximate same number of games to improve even more.
Interesting note: Leilehua’s 15 points is more than any other Hawaii team has scored on Kahuku in Vavae Tata‘s two-year reign as head coach. Only Bishop Gorman (35) of Las Vegas — the top-ranked team in the nation — has scored more on the Red Raiders.
The Mules’ tough schedule has certainly helped them. Here are the results against the big dogs they’ve faced (ranking shown is at the time of the game):
>> Aug. 5: No. 3 Punahou 70, at Leilehua 9
>> Aug. 12: No. 1 Kahuku 49, at Leilehua 15
>> Aug. 20: No. 9 Kapolei 44, Leilehua 13
>> Sept. 5: No. 7 Farrington 19, Leilehua 7
>> Sept. 30: No. 7 Mililani 52, Leilehua 35
Those games represent all five of Leilehua’s losses. Yes, a loss is a loss. But a loss is also a learning experience. It also should be noted that as of right now Punahou is No. 2, Kapolei is No. 4 and Mililani is No. 6.
Since the only demarcation line between Open and D-I in the OIA is a quarterfinal win or loss, and since the quarterfinals haven’t been played yet, at this point it appears that Leilehua belongs in D-I. The Mules (a Division I state title winner in 2007) are a good example of the need for the third tier in the state tournament that has been installed as a pilot this year. In other words, Leilehua may or may not be good enough for the Open, but the Mules are certainly a nice fit in D-I if that’s where they fall.
Here’s what one Leilehua player was thinking after going up against Kahuku the first time:
“I think we did really good, compared to how we did against Punahou,” Mules linebacker Donavon Ugalino said. “I feel real good about how we played, but I think we can do better than that. Kahuku is always a good competitive team to play to test out our strengths. Now we know what we need to fix.”
By the way, if Ugalino is not the heart and soul of his team’s defense, he sure plays like it.
Now is the time. Are things fixed?
Mules head coach Nolan Tokuda is thrilled to be playing Kahuku again. He’s a man who relishes competition, and even if the Mules lose big, he will take away what he learned from it. And … don’t forget … he’ll take it with him to the D-I state tournament.
After beating Aiea 42-27 in the OIA opening round last Saturday, Tokuda said, “We played Kahuku earlier in the year and we always said we wanted another shot at them and see what we can do against the state champions. If you want to be the best, you gotta play the best and we have another opportunity.”
The Leilehua at Kahuku game is Friday at 7:30 p.m.