Q&A: Castle coach John Hao on Knights’ rise

In 2018, Castle football coach John Hao had the Knights in the OIA D-I championship game after starting the year 0-4. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

October 20 won’t ever be the same again in the Hao household.

On Saturday, Grace Hao gave birth to Kūlia Nalani Lokomaikaʻi Hao, who was born, 8 pounds, 1 ounce and 21 inches tall. Less than 12 hours later, dad John Hao was at Castle’s battle with Moanalua. Castle upset the unbeaten Na Menehune 28-14.

“Because we won the game that night, we named her Kulia, which means fortunate and blessed,” Hao said, catching a breather on Thursday afternoon.

The Knights are one of the longest of long shots in the OIA playoffs, a team that endured adversity and even controversy early on. After an 0-4 start (0-3 OIA D-I), they have won five of their last seven games. If Castle can get by Waipahu on Friday night, it would be the first OIA title in 16 seasons for the proud Knights. A win would also secure the one and only D-I state-tournament berth allotted to the OIA.

Castle’s defense, with speedy defensive end Raiden Wong at the point of attack, will have to prepare for a ground-oriented Waipahu attack after facing a pass-heavy Moanalua squad. The ground game, with Senituli Punivai as a smashmouth quarterback in the elephant formation, was pulverizing. Punivai (1,729 yards, 11 TDs from scrimmage) is a catalyst, Hao said. Punivai had 231 yards and two TDs on an incredible 38 carries against Moanalua.

Coach Hao chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Thursday.

HPW: Watching your team for the first time last weekend was amazing. The athleticism on defense, the discipline to contain Moanalua’s passing attack, and the surprise ground-and-pound elephant offense. The team must be stoked.

Hao: We have a deal with the boys. Every time they win we (coaches) run 220s with them. It keeps us in shape.

HPW: What? How many?

Hao: Six times. Except this past week. I ran, but the coaches were hurting. It’s just another way of working out. 

HPW: Senituli Punivai, a running back converted to quarterback. I haven’t seen anyone run out of the elephant like that since Kesi Ah-Hoy at Kahuku a couple of years ago, while you were the offensive coordinator there. Tuli can take a little crease and turn it into a big run.

Hao: We had to adjust. The clutter is so drastic in the middle. Runners tend to hit it and bounce outside. They have to learn how to see that little hole and slip through the gap and explode. We kept talking to Tuli as he learned to do it. The hole is not that big because they load the box. We ran the spread against Waipahu and that’s when he learned to hit it.

HPW: You didn’t show the elephant then.

Hao: It was our goal-line offense. We figured we’d surprise Moanalua. At this point, I always have two or three extra bags of tricks, thinking ahead two or three games. The hardest thing to do is a sideline adjustment. Even with a week of preparation, it’s hard.

HPW: I noticed Kaimuki, in the game before yours, ran the elephant with two to three extra backs who blocked. Your elephant is much more basic.

Hao: Everything up the middle looks the same but we have two, three different variations for blocking. The good thing about this elephant is we put one wide receiver out there so they can’t stack everyone in the box. We have two track stars who run 10.6 100s, so they’ve got to take guys out of the box and we should have 10 (blockers) on nine (defenders in the box).

HPW: Castle lost to Moanalua 40-36 in Week 2, then you guys beat Moanalua last week in the playoffs. Now you play Waipahu, which beat Castle 35-7 during the regular season. Are you expecting the same looks?

Hao: I think it’s going to be the same, but if it’s not working they’ll have two or three other things. They can run some RPO, their spread option. We run the same thing.

HPW: Tuli’s has been incredible as a running quarterback. What’s his future like at the next level?

Hao: Tuli has a good chance. Football is fairly new to him. He’s just an athlete. Talent-wise, he has the ability for (college) D-I. As a coach, I would tell him go to a smaller school unless he has a full ride (in D-I). Otherwise, he might be paying $40,000 to $50,000 and he might not even like it. At a smaller school, it’s more reasonable. 

HPW: Talking with him after the game, he seems to embrace everything.

Hao: He wants it. His grades have been great, his leadership and attitude, his effort at practice and games. This team is driven by how great he plays. When he does his part, it rubs off on the defense, even the receivers are happy. 

HPW: You had a sophomore, No. 11, in the game for a few snaps. He has a nice spiral.

Hao: That’a Mana Kahoopii. We brought him and his brother up to the varsity. I had a five-minute conversation with Mana about X’s and O’s and he understood it like a coach. He played in a couple games (before Moanalua).

HPW: That’s important that younger players are willing to give up their JV season to get invaluable experience on varsity.

Hao: You feed the varsity. Our JV is playing in the championship game this weekend and we’re going to watch them. When the varsity needs them, the JV should feed the varsity. There are five or six kids, I told them they could start for us, but they wanted to stay on JV. Mana and his brother are different. Now their mind-set, vision and timing are already used to varsity speed. By next season, they’re going to be eight months ahead.

HPW: That’s why it’s crucial to have a uniform philosophy and language from youth leagues up to Castle.

Hao: We’re dealing with guys who are still learning. We’d like a youth league team in JPS and Big Boys to be on board with what we do. If I can get a staff that teaches what we do, I don’t have to teach basics anymore. 

HPW: For successful programs in the ILH and, more recently, OIA with Laie Park and Ewa Beach Sabers, it’s almost mandatory to have the terminology and schematics built into the players from seventh and eighth grade. I know Mililani and Rod York did that with their Mill Vill JPS team when they started a few years back. They come to the JV team operating and executing at a high level.

Hao: When I took the Castle program over, I knew what Rod and other coaches were doing. Everybody (in youth leagues) thinks what they run works, but when they come to me, a lot of the players don’t have basics. We want to find a group of guys to teach them basics from 1-tech, 3-tech, cover-2, cover-3, teaching linebackers to read the offensive line.

HPW: Only one team makes it to the D-I state tournament. Does the team talk about it or just go business as usual?

Hao: Everyday I talk to them about how this could be their last practice week. I’d like to change the culture and thought process. Just because things aren’t going your way don’t quit. There’s always one winner and one loser. The best 11 has to be on the field, and if you’re not one of the 11, you work harder. Some kids don’t know the off-season is when you get better. The kids we have now, they’re buying in. The ones who don’t really want to be there will go. No matter what, they might never be positive. 

HPW: What’s a big change that you and your staff have enjoyed this year?

Hao: The ARFs (grade check), we started with 18 kids who couldn’t play. After the first quarter, it was down to only a handful. After tomorrow’s grade check might have only one. And JV only has five. So out of 100 JV and varsity, it should be only six.

HPW: Is it a matter of checking computerized grades or getting more hands-on every day with student-athletes?

Hao: I get the ARF list and my position coaches text their kids. They go to the teacher and let them know, they want to see the note from the teacher saying the player went after school for help. Today I went to campus, got my visitor’s pass and walked the halls. I got one of our kids back in class. It doesn’t hurt if a coach checks on them. They just need a little guidance. Teachers are always willing to help. Kids just have to ask for if you want to get your grades up, especially in a public school. The teacher always has something better to do if a student doesn’t come halfway.

HPW: Even if Castle doesn’t win the title, it’s been quite a comeback season.

Hao: It’s been 16 years since the school won a (football) championship, 2002. That’s when when Corey Paredes was there. I was coaching at Saint Louis.


  1. Furikake October 25, 2018 8:04 pm

    Way to turn things around with the way things were going at Castle earlier this season. It will be a good accomplishment for Castle after all of that. The OIA playoffs -and State’s back in 2002 was not like the way the leagues have divisions now. Castle’s run to the OIA title and then the state title game against St. Louis in 2002 was awesome. And in the state title game vs St. Louis, Castle was in it all the way to the very end. Castle of now still has some ways to go before they can compete again with elite in the open division. Only time will tell… KKKAS SSSSO KAS SSO GOOOOO KASSO!!!

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