Moanalua found a magic formula early on and stuck with it.
Eight wins and no losses into the season, Na Menehune had no reason to change their stunningly effective short-passing game.
Castle? A season of struggle included a controversial practice video. The Knights didn’t have a winning formula of their own until linebacker Senituli Punivai was converted to quarterback. Since then, Castle’s rough 0-4 start has turned into gold.
Punivai, operating almost exclusively out of an elephant formation, rushed for a whopping 231 yards and three TDs in a stunning 28-14 win over No. 7 and previously-unbeaten Moanalua in the semifinals of the OIA Division I playoffs on Saturday night at John Kauinana Stadium.
It didn’t matter if there was a major hole or the slimmest crease. Punivai’s ability to read his blockers and trust their lead made for compelling football, even though the Knights rarely attempted a forward pass. The biggest play of the game may have been on a key third-and-7 late in the game when Punivai lofted a 22-yard pass to Jonah Figueroa for a first down.
“It’s just practicing every day, getting that rep with the linemen. You know, I’d like to thank the defense at first for getting us the ball and getting us the opportunity to get the yardage and score, and keep driving,” Punivai said. “Great job to all my coaches for keeping us in check, keeping our head up.”
It was a night of destiny for Castle (5-6), which had lost to Moanalua 46-21 just three weeks earlier. They came to the rematch with a sticky, but disciplined 3-3-5 defense, which led to seven sacks of Moanalua QB Nick Au. Though the Knights opened a 21-7 lead, Moanalua refused to surrender and pulled within a score.
“Our coach was talking to us, Coach John (Hao), all the coaches, to stay calm and keep fighting,” Punivai said.
Using a similar elephant formation, Kaimuki had a 223-yard night by Naomas Asuega-Fualaau in the earlier game, a 30-14 win over Kaiser in an OIA D-II semifinal. The Bulldogs used three blocking backs in the backfield with Asuega-Fualaau. Castle lined up with extra tight ends and only one blocker in the backfield with Punivai. Occasionally, they lined up in trips formation and still ran up the gut, with Punivai following 5-foot-11, 230-pound linebacker-turned-running back Keanu Tilton.
It began, though, in the trenches with Castle’s beefy offensive line.
“They just pick up all the linebackers for Moanalua when they’re blitzing. I just got to make the right read and keep driving,” Punivai said. “When we realized their linebackers were blitzing every play, we threw in our other quarterback (Kanaipono Kahala-Giron) to throw them off.”