Quietly, they have toiled and sweat on the grassy knolls and fields of Kapolei and Ma‘ili.
When Coach Mose Tuia came home with his MBC Athletics football team, they already notched a first. The club played two games in a three-game span, falling to California club powerhouse Winner Circle Athletics, 14-0, and defeating a combined team of PTP Sports and San Bernardino Elite players, 21-14, in double overtime.
“The trip was very fun. I slept most of the time. I was pretty tired. When game time came, we were all hyped,” said defensive tackle Rafael Leapaga, who had nine sacks in the two mainland battles.
Going into the fourth quarter, the score was 0-0 with WCA, a club that features five- and four-star recruits.
“We were on a big stage against Winner Circle. We wanted to show out what the Hawaii boys can do,” left tackle Micah Kealoha said.
“We could’ve won that game. I didn’t feel any heartbreak. Just keep up the hard work,” Leapaga said. “Try better next time.”
“Most of our team felt like we gave them that win. When they scored, it was due to our mental mistakes,” defensive end Zhen-Keith Sotelo said.
The matchup with the PTP/San Bernardino squad two days later was slightly delayed.
“The lights didn’t turn on until 7:30 p.m. We were there at 5:30. It was 44 degrees,” Kealoha said.
“For the second game, we felt more comfortable. We had a fire under us that we had to win. We didn’t fly out there to lose two games,” Sotelo said.
“Our coaches were as pumped up as us,” Sotelo added, pointing to Coach Tuia.
Mainland travel for island teams requires a lot of fundraising and preparation, but Tuia, his coaches, support staff and players found it rewarding.
“A lot of our kids got good exposure because of the traveling and training. They got a lot of offers out of that. When Hawaii was shut down and they said there was no more football, we had to step up and do something, and that’s what we did,” Tuia said.
Sotelo signed with Hawaii during the winter and has a plan beyond high school, but after years of working out with his MBC teammates, the trip to Southern California was a must — especially with high school football cancelled for public high schools like Kapolei. He got the blessing of Hawaii assistant coach Jacob Yoro.
“Coach Yoro told me to watch how I play, be aware of my surroundings. He told me I could play, but just be aware of the field and make sure I stay safe,” said Sotelo, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive end.
Over time, Sotelo spent countless reps and snaps next to Leapaga, a defensive tackle, while going up against Kealoha. Leapaga is searching for a college to play football. Kealoha, a 6-4, 300-pound senior with a 3.8 grade-point average, will suit up at Concordia next fall. All three play for Kapolei High School, where head coach Darren Hernandez has thrived at sending footage of his players to potential college recruiters. Without a prep season, however, there was no 2020-21 high school footage.
Unlike other players around the state, MBC athletes haven’t posted a lot of video on social media. It has become a valuable and effective tool by players from Punahou, Saint Louis, Kahuku and other powerhouse programs — athletes who have get footage during combines and workouts here and on the mainland.
MBC, Mose’s Boot Camp, began nearly five years ago. Last year, the team traveled to the mainland to Utah and California for linemen challenges. They are the only tackle football club team from the islands to play so far in the 2020-21 academic year. Trench Dawgz, a training group and club team based in Honolulu, had scheduled a showcase and combine at Winner Circle Athletics, but the return of football in California high schools depleted WCA. The game was scrapped, much to the Dawgz’ chagrin.
The work is continuous. After a few days off, they were back to practice this week, and they will grind out another workout on Sunday. Up ahead on the slate is a trip to Seattle in April for two more club games. One game will be against AEP, a Seattle club team.
“Hopefully, one of those two games is a national game against a team from Canada. We have big things coming for MBC Athletics,” Tuia said.
There is also the possibility of a varsity division for JPS Oahu League football league this spring.
Leapaga, at 6 feet, 275 pounds, has a 3.2 GPA and unique athleticism. Tuia compares him to former Kapolei Hurricane and MBC defensive lineman Aaron Faumui, now at Virginia.
“If you talk about under the radar, this guy is really under the radar. He’s the guy that you really need to talk about,” Coach Tuia said. “He works hard. He does what he’s supposed to do. He has good grades. He’s a state judo champion. As a football player, he’s outstanding. His performance and his ability all-around as an athlete is really up there. He really needs to be at D-I. He reminds me of Aaron Faumui.
Leapaga was stunned to hear his coach’s comparison.
“To be honest, I’m very grateful to be compared to Aaron Faumui. Last time he was down here, he trained us and the MBC boys, and I was very grateful for what he taught us. I’m grateful for Coach Mose, as well,” Leapaga said. “I’m hoping that I can go and compete on the next level like Aaron.”
Leapaga has two Division III offers in football — Linfield and Pacific (Ore.) — but the cost issue is a factor. The former OIA wrestling champion in the 285-pound weight class — as a junior — is also looking into that sport. There was no wrestling season this past winter due to cancellation.
“There’s been no luck,” he said.
He also won the 2019 OIA and state titles in judo.
Sotelo considers Leapaga the most underrated player on the team.
“Plenty of people overlook him because of his size, but I believe he deserves D-I,” Sotelo said.
“A lot of people underestimate me and I like that,” Leapaga said. “I like to come out on top with people who are 6-4. Just come out and make a play. I don’t care about the chatter and how they trash talk. It’s all about putting myself on the field and making a play.”
On Monday, the gathering on a cloudy, drizzly afternoon in Kapolei was larger than usual. MBC held tryouts for new players. There isn’t a lot of chatter. Coaches and players are sharp as they break into positional groups and go to work. It may be wet and windy, but the fire is internal among veterans and newbies alike.
Moving the ship forward, Tuia noted, requires everyone’s help. The team traveled with 50 players and 12 coaches and support staff.
“None of this wouldn’t be possible without our team moms, Kylie (Bagio) and Pylin (Kealoha),” Tuia said. “Thank you to those two ladies and my wife, Rosie, and all the coaches on the staff.”