Rod York knew it was a risk. But one he deemed worth taking.
While breaking in new candidates for Mililani’s starting quarterback job this summer, York unleashed the Trojans senior-heavy defense in practice.
“In the beginning (the quarterbacks) were live,” York said. “Some coaches were like, ‘what are you doing?’ But we needed all the experience we can get.
“So I gambled, and said go ahead and tackle him because he needed the experience. The fastest way you’re going to get better is to get your butt kicked.”
McKenzie Milton and the Trojans quarterbacks are again off limits to hits in practice, but facing a Mililani defensive front led by Kelii Padello, Rex Manu, Jacob Afele and Dayton Furuta in the summer helped prepare the sophomore for the challenges to come.
Milton is now slated to become the fourth sophomore to start at quarterback in a Division I state championship game when the Trojans face Punahou on Saturday at Aloha Stadium.
Bryant Moniz (2004) and Andrew Manley (2007) started state finals for Leilehua and Punahou’s Larry Tuileta played in his first championship game in 2011. Of the trio, only Manley came out victorious.
Barring a surprise move Saturday night, Tuileta will end his high school career as the first quarterback to start three D-I title games, breaking a tie with Manley, Lasi Livai (Kahuku), Inoke Funaki (Kahuku) and Bobby George (Saint Louis) as two-time starters since the state tournament format was introduced in 1999.
Tuileta went a combined 39 for 73 for 351 yards with two touchdown passes and six interceptions in losses to Kahuku in the past two finals. But the University of Hawaii commit enters this year’s finale coming off a career-high 430-yard, five-touchdown performance in last week’s semifinal win over Farrington and has the experience of two appearances on the season’s biggest stage.
“He’s very calm, he doesn’t get rattled, (the Buffanblu) feel comfortable with him back there,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said of Tuileta. ”If something goes wrong they know he’ll adjust to it and figure it out and lead us the right way. That’s a lot of expectations for anybody but he handles it well.”
Likewise, York is confident in Milton’s ability to play under the spotlight despite his relative youth.
“He doesn’t know any better. They’re just in the moment, they’ve played big games before so it’s not new to them,” York said after the Mililani coaching staff put the Trojans through a crisp 90-minute practice on Thursday.
“We’ve been through that, we’ve been through the pressure, we’ve been through big games and we’re winning them now, rather than losing them. … We’ll compete and we’ll look at this week as just another week. We definitely understand what’s at stake, but if you get all uptight you’re not going to play your game.”
While taking on the Trojans’ first-team defense gave Milton a head start on the season, the defense has also helped alleviate any subsequent growing pains.
The Trojans have given up nine points or fewer in four of the last five games. In the postseason, they held Leilehua without an offensive touchdown and shut out Farrington and Campbell until late in those games with Mililani well in control.
“They started to jell in the middle of the season and now they play for one another and it’s a whole other level,” York said. “The effort is better, the tacking is better, getting to the ball is a lot better, just the fundamental stuff.”