Campbell was primed for a special year heading into 2019.
With All-State running back Jonan Aina-Chaves transferring from St. Francis joining an already loaded core of brothers Titus and Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala, as well as Pokii Adkins-Kupukaa, Tyrese Tafai, Blaine Hipa, Sky Lactaoen, Peter Manuma and Zavier Ceruti, the Sabers checked in at No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser preseason top 10, behind just Saint Louis and Punahou.
Five losses over the course of the season may have slowed down the hype train, but after Friday’s 28-14 win over Farrington, the boys from Ewa Beach are still right where they’re supposed to be.
The win over the Governors (2-9) in the OIA Open Division third-place game also gives the Sabers (6-5) a spot in the four-team HHSAA Open Division state tournament, which starts on Nov. 22. Campbell will play the OIA champion with a spot in the state final on the line.
“It was a big boost to our team. We knew we were a great team. We just needed some motivation and we got through it and I’m so happy for my boys,” Tafai said after Friday’s win. “It just takes hard work and trust. To be in the top four in the state, you just gotta trust.”
Friday’s victory over the Govs was a grind for the Sabers and a far cry from the first meeting between the two squads, a 41-6 rout for Campbell at Farrington on Aug. 15. The teams were tied 14-14 at halftime, and the Govs used touchdown drives lasting more than eight minutes and six minutes to wear the Sabers’ defense down. But the Campbell defense adjusted to the heavy rushing attack and held Farrington scoreless in the second half.
Darren Johnson’s best athletes have been asked to play on both sides of the ball during his tenure at Campbell. But on Friday, some of his players were assigned to do even more.
Tafai, a natural linebacker, carried the ball five times for 25 yards and a touchdown in his first offensive touches of the season. Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala barely had any time to sit between lining up at safety, receiver, and kick and punt returner. Manuma and Adkins-Kupukaa also spent time in the secondary before shifting over to offense.
Aina-Chaves was out due to academic issues, which required Tafai to get those extra reps in the backfield. Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, who is dealing with knee swelling and discomfort, played just a handful of snaps and received zero targets as mostly a decoy.
“I see all my boys working hard and I know I just gotta keep giving it and I’m a leader on this team and I gotta lead by example,” Tafai said. “If I gotta go both ways for the team, I’ll do what I’m asked.”
“Whatever I gotta sacrifice for my team, whatever we gotta do for the team is what we’re gonna do,” Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala added.
Perhaps no team in the state will benefit more from having four weeks off between games than the Sabers. Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala expressed confidence after the game that Titus will be more than ready for states.
For Johnson, the break also serves as an opportunity to “get better in school and do the small things first.”
Come Nov. 22, team records are basically moot. At that point, each team will be two wins away from a state title.
“That’s a huge benefit for us. We can all get healthy,” Tafai said of the time between games. “We weren’t playing at 100 percent (health) today, but we came through. These next couple byes can really help our team come out to 100 percent. We’re gonna be ready.”