Savai’i Eselu’s Moanalua teams have done plenty of winning over the past two seasons.
Friday night’s 33-13 victory over Radford for Na Menehune (8-0, 6-0 OIA D-I) sealed an undefeated record through the OIA Division I slate for the second consecutive season.
A win is a win, but Eselu admitted his squad left a lot on the field against the Rams (0-7, 0-5). The matchup on Moanalua’s senior night pitted an undefeated team against a winless Radford squad, and Na Menehune came out lethargic.
The game was never truly in question beyond the first quarter, but many would’ve expected the gap between the sixth-ranked team in the state and the Rams to be much higher entering the night.
“We didn’t play to our highest potential. We didn’t play fast, we didn’t play competitive,” Eselu said. “At times we showed spurts, but I don’t know what it was.”
Even if Moanalua had lost on Friday, it had already clinched the top seed in the OIA Division I playoffs.
But Eselu sees a valuable lesson to be learned in the win, and one that hits home in a painful way to many players on this year’s squad.
Last year’s team was 8-0 heading into the OIA playoffs and riding high. Then after a 28-14 home loss to Castle in the first round, led by Senituli Punivai’s 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the season was suddenly over.
The 2018 Moanalua squad reached as high as No. 7 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. This year’s team has already reached No. 6, and has history to look back on as a humbling reminder of what can happen on any given gameday.
“Here and there, guys weren’t finishing plays and so on and so forth,” Eselu said of his team’s performance on Friday night. “It was one of those things where if we play in the playoffs like that, Castle’s gonna happen all over again.”
Before Moanalua can shift its attention to the OIA playoffs, it faces a stiff test in No. 10 Damien Friday at Aloha Stadium. Although the result against the Monarchs of the ILH won’t have any bearing on the OIA playoffs, Eselu sees an opportunity for his team to face a formidable team in a high leverage situation. Depending on what happens Saturday, the Monarchs could be fighting for the ILH’s lone HHSAA Division I spot when the two teams square off next week.
“Don’t take anything for granted. Prepare for anything and always expect the unexpected. Just keep the pedal to the metal,” he said. “We got real lazy this time of year last year. We got real accustomed to winning, but not executing at a high level. That’s kind of the word we’re preaching this time around and it starts with this game, then it goes into Damien and it goes into the first round, and hopefully we can go further than the first round.
“We’ll give it our best effort at all times regardless of the situation. We’re just gonna prep up because their quarterback is awesome, their running backs are awesome. Their O-line, their D-line, they’re great too. It ain’t gonna be a walk in the park and coach (Eddie) Klaneski has done a wonderful job throughout the years and it’s gonna be a very good battle.”
As for the players on this year’s Moanalua squad, the memories of last season’s Castle loss resonate. The goal this season was to again earn the OIA’s top seed.
Come playoff time, there’s no more room for error.
“Hopefully we can do better than what we did last year because we want to win states this year,” said Lawsen Lee, who finished with six receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown against Radford. “Don’t take anything lightly and always give 100 percent because you never know when your last game’s gonna be.
“You gotta make the best out of when you win because losing sucks.”