You might think there would be a lot of formality and tension at practice just two days before the biggest game of the year.
That notion would be partially correct. The defending state champion Punahou Buffanblu (8-0) worked through reps in rhythm, a well-oiled machine from the Diamond Head end zone, where special teams worked through PATs — and Jon Toner’s booming, soaring kicks — and the rest of the team worked out by position. Linebackers in the Ewa red zone. Offensive linemen, including massive Semisi Uluave, going through drills with cones, all in one fluid motion as a unit. Even standout players of recent years — Robby Toma, Dalton Hilliard, Miah Ostrowski — are now assistant coaches, setting the Buffanblu through their paces.
Teetai Ane, offensive coordinator and developer of hybrid schemes galore, stays safe from the scorching sun with a big hat identical to that of his dad, head coach Kale Ane. The machine hums through the late-afternoon workout.
Before practice? Some of the Buffanblu like nothing more than to get their teammates to lose concentration and fall off their seats laughing as a reporter conducts an interview. Kanawai Noa, the superb wide receiver, popped candy into his mouth for a little extra energy and got linebacker Kalama Chung off-balance with his antics behind the video camera.
Noa wasn’t the only comedian. There were a few teammates who know how to get Chung cracking up. Somewhere, between the hundreds of workouts in the weight room and on the field, the Buffanblu found a way to keep their sanity. They found a way to build a championship-level momentum to the end game. They face a juggernaut in No. 2-seeded Mililani on Friday at Aloha Stadium, but the top-seeded Buffanblu seem more like a loose and calm group. It makes sense, given the wealth of senior experience and leadership.
Uluave, their 6-foot-6, 315-pound senior in the trenches, feels good all things considered.
“The season started rough and a little bit slow,” he said of early-season injuries. “With time and the help of my coaches and teammates, I’ve been doing well.”
Mililani’s front seven offer a mix of speed and power, especially with defensive tackle Rex Manu.
“He’s good. He’s great. One of the best defensive linemen in the state. My game plan for him, honestly, is to stay in front of him. Maybe not mirror him, but execute my blocking. He has a motor and doesn’t stop. He even pursues after the ball is gone. That’s what I respect about Rex. The type of game he plays, that’s collegiate level. If that’s going to prepare me for college, so be it.”
Punahou’s offensive line? Not exactly pushovers, either. Their versatility allows for the best of both worlds: extensive and relentless hurry-up offense, or a slower-paced, ground-and-pound minded mentality.
“We have the ability and the strategies to do so, but we just have to execute and play the best game we can. It’s going to be tough. I don’t expect it to be easy at all. I hope it’s a great game like last time,” Uluave said. “Two great offenses, two great defenses about to go at it again.”
Preparing defensively for the likes of Mililani’s scrambling, speedy quarterback, McKenzie Milton would seem like studying for final exams. But it may come down to simply containing those Trojan weapons and finishing plays with authority. Punahou might give a little bit of cushion against the Trojan offense, but with Chung (12 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack against Kahuku), Ronley Lakalaka and Saitui Moea‘i possibly blitzing, possibly in coverage, well, they can all deliver sound tackling and big hits.
“Our play calling won’t have too much to do with it. It’s how we react,” Chung said.
Mililani coach Rod York calls Noa possibly the best wide receiver ever in the islands. Noa has been reliable deep, short, intermediate and his kickoff return to the house turned out to be Punahou’s only TD in the 13-10 win over Kahuku. He’s keeping his hair longer than ever. Maybe for luck. Maybe for the Samson effect. But it’s here to stay.
“We’ll see. It depends on what my mom says,” Noa said before practice.
Even in just eight games, Noa’s numbers have been stellar: 53 receptions, 1,052 yards, nine TDs, along with three returns on special teams for TDs. Punahou enjoys a warp-speed pace, but even a grind of a game like last week’s is fine with the senior.
“Last week, it was a pretty ugly score, but it was a fun, intense game. I’m excited for this week. I like the tight games. Everyone wants a big blowout, but when it comes to the close games, it’s who comes up clutch,” the 6-1, 185-pound wideout said.
Speaking of clutch, Jon Toner was sharp and powerful on his kicks for the first 20 or 30 minutes of practice. Kicking coach Eric Hannum noted that the 6-3, 180-pound junior is No. 1 in the class of 2016 in Chris Sailer’s ratings. His two fourth-quarter field goals lifted Punahou to victory last week.
“It’s been good so far,” Toner said of Punahou’s unbeaten run. “I think about a big kick every night. I was ready. My coach helps me focus on myself so I can go out there and do my job.”
Toner credited his friend and competitor, Alex Trifonovitch, for pushing him to become better.
“Definitely. Me and Alex are best friends. It’s not taken harshly. It’s just taken to get better every day,” said Toner, who, like Trifonovitch, plays soccer for the Buffanblu.
There is no special mantra or breathing technique for Toner when his team is driving downfield for a potential game-tying or winning score.
“I don’t really say anything. I prepare myself every day, just make sure I take mental reps the night before, the weeks before,” he said, crediting a steady offseason work ethic. “I’ve taken a couple thousand (kickoffs, PATs and field goals), at least.”
Win or lose, the season comes to a close on Friday.
“I haven’t thought about it, but it’s creeping to the end of the season,” Noa said. “It’s hard thinking about it. It’s my last year and not being to play high school football again, but that’s how it goes.”