HILO >> At one time, not so long ago, the Leilehua Mules were quite familiar with mud-bog conditions.
The natural surface at Hugh Yoshida Stadium used to turn into a swamp with lakes aplenty. Eventually, that led to the installation of synthetic turf, and the Mules ran and cut happily ever after.
Except tonight. Playing on the road for a second week in a row, the OIA Division I runners-up flew to soggy Hilo. They marched into Dr. Francis Wong Stadium hearing tales of what the mushy, muddy surface at the baseball facility would be like.
Dealing with the cake of mud along the sideline and in the corners of end zones was nothing the Mules could have prepared for. In Hilo’s 19-9 win, there was no slipping and sliding for the home team. Running back Lyle Silva was practically perfect in between the tackles, gaining 86 yards on 19 carries to keep Leilehua’s sturdy defense honest.
When the Mules had their chances to run, the results were mixed. Sophomore sensation Jemell Vereen had a breakaway run on the first series, but somehow slipped and fell at the Hilo 35-yard line. It would have been a 79-yard touchdown run.
In the second half, with Demarion Smith at running back, he slipped after a handoff while trying to make a cut. On the next play, a low snap led to a fumble recovered by the Vikings. It was one of a multitude of fumbles by each team, humbled by the weather. By the second half, the area between hashmarks was turning muddy. Leilehua coach Mark Kurisu preferred not to dwell on the slippery footballs and wet conditions.
“We’ve got to win wherever we go. The conditions were the same for both (teams). We just didn’t do what we normally do,” Kurisu said. “We got a little bit out of character. Some silly penalties, on that first drive especially. Even on the back end as we got closer. It’s hard because these kids are competing kids and they’re trying to make plays. Sometimes, a play doesn’t happen and we end up hurting ourselves.”
Vereen returned after suffering a mid-game injury and finished with 124 yards on 18 carries, capping one of the best sophomore seasons in school history. The Mules got within 12-9 after a safety, had the ball at their 48 with a chance to take the lead. Instead, they went backwards. It just wasn’t their night.
“It was a great job by Hilo. They did what they needed to do. They ran the ball a little bit,” Kurisu said. “Congratulations to Hilo and their squad. Thank you to Coach (Kaeo) Drummondo for hosting, all the Hilo parents reaching out to our kids and allowing us to have a meal. We appreciate that a lot.”
Ranked No. 8 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, Leilehua finished the year 10-3 after the loss to No. 6 Hilo.
“I feel mixed. I’m happy for the type of season our guys had. To be so close, competing for a state championship is hard. That’s part of the growing process,” Kurisu said. “This group of guys has made a huge jump from when we started a few years ago. We were able to not only challenge for an OIA championship right away, but a state championship this year. One round short. It’s another step we took forward today. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world (to lose), but together what we did is pretty inspiring. These seniors definitely left a legacy for the underclassmen.”