>> The North Shore is often raided for its star athletes, and that’s just part of the subplot in Saturday’s state football semifinal game between No. 1 Punahou and No. 3 Kahuku
(Here’s the longer version of this morning’s story in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.)
All any parent wants for his or her children is opportunity.
The lure of a better life — and happiness — is the driving force for all kinds of life-changing decisions. For many people, it was the source of their family’s migration from Asia, North America, Europe. The South Pacific.
The trickle-down effect is clear in high school football. When No. 1-ranked Punahou battles No. 3 Kahuku on Saturday in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division I State Football Championships, the span of football talent originating from the North Shore will be visible. No less than seven players know the pipeline between the North Shore and the elite, esteemed academic and athletic culture at Punahou.
This is not a first. North Shore talent has been stocking the talent pool at ILH schools for years. The Saint Louis dynasty of the 1990s featured tremendous players from Honolulu and rural areas, particularly the North Shore.
This year, Punahou’s North Shore harvest is amazing. With this group, the Buffanblu (7-0) have been dominant in the ILH and enters the state tourney — after an opening-round bye — as defending champion. And still unbeaten in 2014.
>> Wayne Taulapapa, RB, 5-11, 185, Jr.
>> Ephraim Tuliloa, QB. 6-3, 225, Jr.
>> Semisi Uluave, OL, 6-6, 315, Sr.
>> Saitui Moea‘i, LB, 6-1, 205, Sr.
>> C.J. Tuliloa, FB, 6-1, 225, So.
>> Steven Falatea, DE/FB, 6-2, 210, Sr.
Taulapapa, Tuliloa, Uluave and Moea‘i are key cogs for Punahou. Three of them — Taulapapa, Uluave and Moea‘i, started for Punahou’s championship team a year ago. Taulapapa has been one of the top rushers in the state — 846 rushing yards, 17 TDs, 10.4 yards per carry — despite a fairly light workload due to a shortened schedule and a handful of blowout games.
Tuliloa has been remarkable as a first-year starter. The left-hander has completed 70 percent of his attempts for 1,706 yards with 18 TDs and just two picks. Across the board, his numbers are among the best, if not at the very top: 11.8 yards per attempt, 284 yards per game, 207.38 passer rating.
Uluave is also one of the best in the state at his position, a powerful run blocker and reliable pass protector. Moea‘i is part of an active, highly efficient group of linebackers (along with Ronley Lakalaka and Kalama Chung), versatile with blitzes, run stopping and coverage.
It doesn’t end there. More North Shore talent was at Kamehameha this season. Defensive end Mika Taufa (6-4, 238), a BYU commit, had another outstanding season. Offensive lineman Ra Elkington (6-4, 285) also played for the Warriors. In all, the count is 11 players who have left the area in the last three years to play for ILH teams, enough to fill either an offensive or defensive unit entirely. (This doesn’t include the handful of Kahuku JV players who transferred to Saint Louis last summer when Cal Lee returned as head coach.)
Kahuku (9-2) was happy about the return of three former ILH players in recent seasons: DT/RB Salanoa-Alo Wily (6-1, 270), LB/FB Reupena Fitisemanu (6-0, 255) and DB/WR Alohi Gilman (6-0, 180). Wily returned from Kamehameha before the ’13 season. Fitisemanu came home after playing for Punahou. Gilman left Kamehameha, moved to Utah for a year, then came home to the Red Raiders.
If all of this talent had stayed and played for Kahuku from the start, who knows?
“Well, it’s obvious if they had stayed. On the other hand, a lot of my kids wouldn’t be playing,” first-year Kahuku coach Lee Leslie said. “But it’s always in the back of your mind.”
Former longtime Kahuku coach Reggie Torres is now an assistant at Punahou. He still works at the Kahuku campus.
“Oh man, they’d be like Punahou this year. Imagine if they had Mika Tafua, put Salanoa at running back. Wayne could be the third back. Or have Salanoa as the short-yardage back. You add Semisi to the offensive line and their line is already big,” Torres said. “It would be amazing what you could do. If Ephraim was the starting quarterback, you could put Tuli (Wily-Matagi) outside with those long arms. Maybe a mike ‘backer. If you’ve got Saitui and Mika and Pena and Salanoa, that’s a heck of a front. You could go 4-3 if you want.
“There’s Eli (Sioeli Naupoto) at linebacker. They’re using Malcolm (Macatiag) as a linebacker, but he’s also a good defensive back. You could drop him (into coverage) or go 5-3.”
Uluave, a talented singer, has benefited from the arts program at Punahou, but he has also thought about what it would’ve been like to stay home at Kahuku. A cousin, Siotame Uluave, is a standout offensive lineman for the Red Raiders.
“It would’ve been easier not having to get up at 4:30 every morning. It would be a different ball game. Kahuku would probably be a feared machine,” the Punahou lineman wrote via text.
Punahou coach Kale Ane thinks Kahuku would’ve been in a very unique situation.
“I think there would be a difference. Some of those kids would have to play different positions and compete for positions like everybody else. Kahuku would be so good. It’s kind of like UH and how good they’d be if everybody stayed home,” Ane said. “But the kids and parents make choices.”
Without the influx of players from Laie, in particular, Punahou’s starting lineup would be impacted.
“The backup quarterback (Nicholas Kapule) is pretty good. He and (Tuliloa) were in a tight battle before the season. The O-line, Misi is the leader and we don’t have anybody as big. If we lost Saitui, we have depth. But the boy who you can’t replace is Taulapapa,” Torres said, noting the recent leg injury to backup running back Heisman Hosoda.
Leslie thinks Punahou would’ve made up the difference one way or another.
‘They got the pick of the litter there. If they didn’t have (North Shore players), they’d have someone else. They’ve got a great, beautiful school. The big upside is with scholarship (financial aid) help. I think eighth grade is too young to get recruited, but I get it. Parents will do what they think is best for their kids.”
Torres saw his share of North Shore players depart for Punahou.
“A lot of it has to do with the parents. It’s hard for a kid to leave his group of friends and go to a new school. The thing about Kahuku that’s so attractive is it’s so family-oriented. Especially with football players, you get the spirit and support from everybody. Punahou is a big program and the coaches are good to the kids, but it’s different,” he said.
Punahou, he added, is a place where students grow up a little faster because of demands.
“You come in as a freshman and they make sure you go to summer school. They make sure the kids are prepared. It’s a rude awakening. The players don’t even have time to train sometimes. It’s like being a college player. You do the training and get good grades. In that essence, you can try harder there because you feel obligated to, whether they’re paying 20-grand or getting financial assistance. There’s an obligation,” Torres said.
He thought about Manti Te‘o, who went to Punahou as a eighth grader, returned to Kahuku, and then went back to Punahou. Te‘o became, perhaps, the most highly-recruited player in Hawaii history.
“The opportunity to go to Punahou, the environment and classroom setting, it’s totally different. That’s why Manti (Te‘o) went back. He wasn’t (academically) challenged at Kahuku,” Torres said. “Semisi wanted to come back after his freshman year. He missed it, but now he loves it (at Punahou). He has all these colleges, all these opportunities. There are benefits that private schools offer.”
Uluave, like a lot of transplanted players, finds himself cheering for both schools in all sports.
“We all have our second thoughts, especially when times would get tough,” Uluave texted. “We would want to run away from our problems and just go home, but with support from our parents, we find that small light in the darkness. It’s tough to be ‘those guys’ because we don’t want to be separated from the pack like that.”
Ane spent years teaching and coaching in the public-school system — Radford and Kaimuki High Schools, and Kalakaua Middle School — and has been supportive of the OIA in his role as an administrator.
“I’ve found that parents are the starting point of a transition, but the student has to really want to come (to Punahou). He has to do the homework and get up early and make the change whether it’s from Kaimuki or Kahala or Laie. They have sacrifices they have to make as a family. They have to be all in,” he said. “If a kid doesn’t want to come, it doesn’t matter what the parent says. It won’t work. Once you make new friends, it gets better. You can’t really appreciate it until you get in their shoes. As a parent, we all want what’s best for our kids, but the kid, he or she has to want to excel.”
Leslie admits that he was once a little less flexible than his players.
“I’m still searching for this definition of a ‘Red Raider for Life’. Is it you’re a Red Raider for life until you leave or turn your back on it? The only thing we can control is busting our butts as teachers and educators and coaches to make Kahuku the best place it can be with study hall and setting the bar high. For the most part, we’ve done a great job with that this year. We’ve got great improvements with some kids so we’ll be moving them on to college or even junior college,” he said.
“None of these kids hold ill will against each other. That’s what’s interesting. I would think their guard would be up and passing judgment because (other players) left, but none of that happens.”
Seeing that has made a difference.
“The kids that came home… I would’ve felt cheated if I wouldn’t have had a chance to coach Pena. He’s a great kid, humble, hard-working,” Leslie said. “It’s been amazing working with him.”
Ane believes the big picture goes beyond high school.
“When I think of Marcus (Mariota), I don’t think of Saint Louis. I think of Hawaii,” he said. “The same goes with Shane Victorino. They represent all of us and they do it really well.”