Quarterback McKenzie Milton used the word “surreal” to describe the way he felt after Mililani’s gripping 53-45 victory over Punahou in the Division I state championship game Friday night.
But the game itself and the atmosphere inside Aloha Stadium was, to name-drop a rock album from the ’60s, a “Surrealistic Pillow” for fans to sit back with, relax and watch perhaps the best Hawaii high school football game ever played.
For most of the season, two mighty offenses flexed their muscles before hitting some serious stumbling blocks just prior to the much-anticipated matchup.
And boy, did the Trojans and Buffanblu put on a show.
Mililani grabbed a relatively large early lead of 26-7, but Punahou stormed back and kept within striking distance the rest of the way.
Maybe one of the most surreal moments came on the final play, when Milton danced away from defenders near his own end zone to kill two seconds off the clock on fourth down.
“That was the last thing in the world I was going to do, drop that ball,” Milton said. “I was hanging on for dear life.”
Dear life. Interesting way to put it, since Punahou was coming after him hard all night, and it didn’t help matters when right tackle Jordan Agasiva (left ankle) and running back Vavae Malepeai (right knee) went down with injuries and did not return.
Guard Tyler Santos and running back Cheyne Constantino filled in admirably. Santos was instrumental in holding up the pass protection.
“Tyler stepped up big,” Milton said. “I have faith in all my guys. I’m so glad we didn’t get complacent. This is surreal. Insane. I love the guys to death. I love the coaches to death.”
To death. He has an interesting, existential-like way with words. But, let’s get real, word choice may be one of Milton’s strengths, but it’s nothing compared to his primary athletic weapons, his right arm, his feet and his mind.
The feet allow him to create space for himself with quickness, not to mention give him the appropriate burst of speed and the right angle to run for when he senses trouble.
The arm doesn’t need any introduction and his accuracy says it all. He is nearly always on the money. No matter who you are, you don’t pass for more than 400 yards in a state Division I title game unless you are accurate.
And now, the mind. Milton has an uncanny knack for seeing danger and knowing how to get away. Even more importantly, for Mililani, he makes the correct decisions of when to pass and when to run.
Trojans coach Rod York says it’s this last thing, the decision-making, that sets Milton apart.
It certainly helps to have guys like Kalakaua Timoteo and Kainoa Wilson catching passes for you. Timoteo was on fire, catching four TD passes from Milton on the night, and it seemed like every few minutes, Timoteo was looking up and making an over-the-shoulder grab of a pinpoint pass.
Not lost in all of this offensive circus is the play of the Mililani defense. Aside from the up-front work of guys like Rex Manu, Kahewai Kaaiawaawa and Kaimana Padello, the defensive backs were put to the test trying to stop Kanawai Noa — the state’s all-time leading receiver — and Micah Ma‘a.
Without a doubt, the play of Ty Apana-Purcell was huge. He was assigned to cover Noa 1-on-1 for much of the night and he held him to just 18 receiving yards until Noa’s receptions of 28 and 14 yards on the final drive.
Apana-Purcell also had a dramatic 83-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first half and he made the strip on Punahou’s last-drive fumble.
In crunch time, the Buffanblu were knocking on the door and went to their money player, Noa, often and without hesitation. Noa actually caught an Ephraim Tuliloa pass inside the 5-yard line, but his first foot came down out of bounds.
On the play that virtually decided the game, Wayne Taulapapa’s fourth-down fumble that rolled out of the end zone, Noa was called for a holding penalty. It appeared Punahou was going to get the ball back on fourth down minus the penalty yardage. But the officials ruled the fumble was a touchback and Mililani took over and ran out the clock.
“I feel like I screwed up the game for us,” Taulapapa said. “I feel bad for my school and my teammates. They (Mililani) did great on defense. Give credit to them. We stuck together and tried our best. We’ll be working on getting better, starting Monday.”
Punahou coach Kale Ane said of the play and the ruling, “That was a tough one to swallow.”
Taulapapa was a monster to tackle all night, grinding for 260 yards and three touchdowns, and Tuliloa passed for 285 yards with two touchdowns and a rushing TD.
The Buffanblu players were devastated that they didn’t retain the state title.
“Keep your heads high,” a Punahou assistant repeated often.
Defensive linemen Joseph Saula and Canton Kaumatule were standing side by side, shedding the agonizing tears while a bench helper tried to console them.
“We struggled from behind the whole game and never quit,” Ane said. “The kids gave everything they had. We had some stops on defense, but not enough stops.”
Ane also joked after the game that he didn’t think he could count high enough to the final point total of 98.
Ane took the loss with class, as expected. He remained cool and collected throughout, even when the Buffanblu were down by 19 points in the first half.
Punahou kept on coming and coming and it seemed like the Buffanblu were coming to the end zone again near the end.
Mililani was piling up the points, seemingly with ease, and it turned out they needed almost every single one of them.
Both teams plan to be in the mix again next year, and it’s not out of the question that they meet again in the big game for the third year in a row.
York pointed to the future right after the win, when he said, “This will not be the defining moment for us, but it’ll definitely be a happy moment.”
Later on, he texted: “It’s a great night to be a Trojan.”