Moanalua knew it needed to play a perfect game to hang with No. 3 Mililani in the OIA Division I quarterfinals on Friday night.
Na Menehune sure tried, but they were not perfect, falling 49-14 at John Kauinana Stadium. So ended a turnaround season, one that seemed lost in early September but was salvaged in very respectable fashion. Moanalua (4-6) began 0-5, staged a three-game rally to make the playoffs, then upset Kailua 17-14 in the first round last week to get to this point.
On Friday, the visitors got blitzed by Dillon Gabriel’s five touchdowns and 195 yards passing in a half of work (Mililani led 49-0 at halftime). However, Na Menehune didn’t quit. Quarterback Nick Au connected with the Ezras (Bantolina and Grace) for touchdowns at the end of the third and fourth quarters, respectively, to end the season with a tantalizing idea of what they could be as a unit next season.
“I liked it, I liked it,” second-year coach Savai’i Eselu said. “I mean, we knew this was a really, really tall task with Mililani and the way they do things here. I’m glad at what happened, just the way the game was played altogether. It was a good game. But best of luck to Mililani. They’re the real deal.”
The Trojans (9-0) advanced to face Waianae in the OIA semifinals next week.
Moanalua can be proud of what it did in response to getting outscored by a combined margin of 213-39 over its first five games. That included a 44-0 loss to Kailua.
From there, Na Menehune won 31-27 at Aiea; collected a forfeit win over Kaiser; edged Radford 21-20; and ended Kailua’s season in the playoffs.
“Of course, the front end was very, very heavy (with games against Punahou, Kahuku, Waianae, and Campbell),” Eselu said. “But the back end was more ideal. And what better way to get a crack at Mililani, and call it a season, I guess.”
Said Grace, the team’s top receiver who snagged six balls for 91 yards Friday: “It was good fun. We had a great time going through the whole season. Looking back now, it passed by really fast. We’re happy with the coaching staff we’re blessed to have. And yeah, can’t wait ’til next season.”
Grace had 38 grabs for 493 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. His connection with his classmate, Au, grew as the season went.
Au went 15-for-21 for 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Trojans. That brought his season total to just over 50 percent completions, 140-for-279, with nine TDs and 19 picks.
“We had our ups and downs, stuff like that, miscommunication on routes,” Grace said. “I’m just happy we have him next year. We have a connection to go to. … I think we have a lot of potential for next year. We have a lot of juniors that’s coming back as seniors. And with the coaching staff we have, we know that we have good techniques, new schemes we can put in, and new talent. It should be fun next year.”
Eselu’s focus now turns to the youth ranks of the JV that could bolster Na Menehune to something closer to contention in 2018. They can start by cultivating more of a ground game. Junior Makana Spencer, Na Menehune’s top rusher this season, netted a negative yard against the Trojans and had 277 yards and two TDs for the year.
“I’m excited. We got a strong, young junior class coming in,” Eselu said. “We got a JV game tomorrow. Coaching never stops. A full year-round deal, so.
“Back to the drawing board. We’re going to try some things, see what we can do with what we have. … Ezra’s a junior, with his final season coming up. So we gotta get this thing rolling. Hopefully it can work out and I can run it like how Coach (Rod) York runs it (at Mililani).”