Lyle Tuiloma stands tall in Nanakuli.
If you gaze across the field during a Golden Hawks practice, game or postgame handshake, it’s doubtful that you’ll miss seeing the solidly built Tuiloma in jersey No. 74.
That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to see Tuiloma, front and center, pointing toward his teammates and coaches in a celebration photo taken by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Bruce Asato moments after Nanakuli’s 28-21 comeback win over Pearl City on Sept. 26.
It also wasn’t a surprise to see Tuiloma at the front of the line when the Golden Hawks marched single file back to the bus after wrapping up an 8-0 regular season with a 48-35 win over Kalani at Kaiser Stadium last Saturday.
Just before stepping on the bus, Tuiloma had some words for his teammates, but they weren’t spoken directly to them. They were spoken to the media and they were said with more wisdom than the average high school athlete usually displays.
“We didn’t play our best football,” he said. “We were sloppy. The focus right now has to be on us getting better and to not get big-headed and act like champions. We have to keep our heads down and stay humble. We have to keep urging to get better.”
In Tuiloma’s mind, if the Golden Hawks play again like they did against Kalani, they might be in trouble as the playoffs go deeper. Nanakuli led comfortably most of the game, but allowed Kalani to get within six points, 41-35, in the late stages.
The two teams meet again in the first round of the OIA D-II playoffs on Oct. 25 in Nanakuli.
On Saturday, the Falcons remained hungry throughout, and had the Golden Hawks not recovered an onside kick and returned it to the Kalani 1, leading to a touchdown to wrap it up, things could have turned out a lot different.
Nanakuli coach Keala Watson wants his team to shut the door a lot faster.
A lot is on the line, indeed, for the whole Nanakuli community. The Golden Hawks are OIA D-II regular-season champions, but that title pales in comparison to what they’re gunning for next — the OIA overall title — and the thing every team is working for — the state championship.
Nanakuli went to the states two years ago, but its last overall league title came in 1983.
So, Tuiloma, the 6-foot-3, 284-pound Colorado commit, and Watson aren’t going to be smiling comfortably anytime soon.
Kalani (4-4) got a taste of the rugged style the Golden Hawks play and it’s possible the Falcons can come up with answers.
The Falcons’ best bet at this point is running back Ace Faumui, who may have to play quarterback due to an ankle injury to starter Tyler Ching.
Faumui bulled and weaved his way for 280 rushing yards and three touchdowns against Nanakuli. Some of those yards came out of the wildcat formation with Faumui taking direct snaps at quarterback in the second half after Ching went down.
Makaila Haina-Horswill, who rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns for the Golden Hawks, proved to be an important counter-balance to Faumui.
Up until game time, both teams will be working on neutralizing those two potent weapons.
“We will prepare the best we can,” Falcons coach Greg Taguchi said.
Nanakuli’s Alexcio Meyers (interception), Nakanaela Kipi (interception return for a TD), Randy Manewa, and Casey Delima, and Kalani’s Payton Awaya (fumble recovery, sack), Terico James, Sione Vea, Dunavan Hahn and Wayne Furuya were among the defensive stalwarts in Saturday’s game.
The winner will play against the victor of the Radford vs. Pearl City game, the other semifinal, which is also scheduled for Oct. 25.
“You can’t count them (Kalani) out,” Watson said.
It looks to be a razor close battle for the OIA D-II crown, especially if you add these previous tight scores to Saturday’s close game:
>> Sept. 20: Pearl City 34, Radford 26, at Aiea High field
>> Sept. 26: At Nanakuli 28, Pearl City 21
>> Oct. 3: Nanakuli 27, Radford 26, at Ticky Vasconcellos Stadium
The OIA D-II champion and runner-up will qualify for the state tournament.
Two teams have already qualified for the D-II states — KIF champion Kapaa and MIL D-II winner Lahainaluna.
Two others will qualify. The Big Island D-II title is still up for grabs among Kamehameha-Hawaii, Konawaena and Hawaii Prep, and the ILH D-II playoffs featuring ‘Iolani, Damien, Pac-Five and St. Francis begin Friday.