Timing can be everything.
Kui Kahooilihala understands this well. The longtime assistant coach saw Roosevelt often overachieve to keep up with the massive powerhouse teams of the OIA East for years. By the time he was asked to apply for the head coaching position, Kahooilihala did it more out of compliance with his friends than anything.
Three years since being hired to guide the program, Kahooilihala not only turned the program back into a winner, but Roosevelt (11-1) won the OIA D-II championship with an entirely different offense. The Rough Riders will host Pac-Five on Saturday, a team they beat on a last-second field goal by Mason Murashige back in August, in the semifinal round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships.
Coach Kahooilihala chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Tuesday.
HPW: Roosevelt had been successful much of the time over the decades with the run-and-shoot offense. You brought back something that was more common in the 1960s and ‘70s, kind of a Texas veer attack.
Kahooilihala: Our scheme, we kind of tweaked it a little bit so we all would be on the same page. It kind of took us awhile, but the kids bought into what we’re doing. We’re still trying to run the ball, our veer option. That’s always first and foremost for our program. We’ve got to pass, so we tweaked it, put in the run and shoot, spread the ball.
HPW: The run-pass ratio was still pretty heavy on the run side the last time I looked at the numbers, but you still want some balance.
Kahooilihala: We played in the Pylon (7v7) so that kind of helped us a little bit, and we stuck with that. But we’re not going to get away from our run option and veer.
HPW: It was a close game the last time Roosevelt and Pac-Five played.
Kahooilihala: They’re a good team. We’re never going to take anybody cheap. To us, they’re a great team. They’re well coached. Kip has been up there for how long. And Junior Pale is the DC.
HPW: Junior Pale? The basketball/football standout from Mid-Pacific? Wow.
Kahooilihala: He’s a legend and a good guy. I love them. They’re good coaches. You never know what to expect. Those guys are well balanced with the run and the pass. We’ve got our work cut out for our defense.
HPW: That first matchup was way, way back. Three months have passed.
Kahooilihala: In (week 2) we weren’t really polished. We were still trying to get everybody on the same page, especially on the passing side. Everybody was still learning. This time around, hopefully our guys come out and do what we always do. Execute our side of the ball and take care of our schemes.
HPW: You lost some great leaders to graduation. I think about guys like Jared Elwin, now playing at Pacific Lutheran. I bet they wish they could still be playing now. But your younger players really benefited and learned on the way to this point.
Kahooilihala: Our underclassmen had to step it up this year. I think we have great leadership with Marcus Hee and Tamaki (Iijima). Those guys really stepped it up for us, and Lio (Ilalio), our nose guard. (Note: Ilalio, who is also a center on the basketball team, is 6-2, 315 pounds).
HPW: I remember when Lio was all about basketball and didn’t really want to play football. He was a phenomenal athlete in middle school.
Kahooilihala: Yes, and now he wants to play football and maybe not play basketball, but I told him, he should still play (basketball).
HPW: I hope he plays basketball. His friends like Micah Visoria, and the coaching staff are counting on him. Aside from Lio, Roosevelt is typically not super big on defense, but very active. A little bit like ‘Iolani, which has created different, unique schemes that are tough to decipher.
Kahooilihala: We’ve got to mix it up, kind of like what Wendell (Look) guys are doing. We don’t have size. Coach John (Kahooilihala, Kui’s nephew), our DC, throws in a couple of stunts here and there. Our DBs are very athletic so they can cover guys, play man, soft man and play our zone coverage. He’ll send guys here and there, bring our LBs and CBs sometimes. But we’ve got to disguise our defense. Our base is 3-4 and we have an even front too.
HPW: I can see you guys using Lio in surprise coverage occasionally. He has great hands.
Kahooilihala: Lio will drop and our other nose tackles do that on certain schemes.
HPW: So the veer isn’t exclusive. You mix in some RPO. How’s that been working?
Kahooilihala: It’s all right. We did try to use that with our OC. We had to go with the kind of kids we got, and do what we’re. Option veer, pretty much basic.
HPW: Very difficult to be consistent against a great running team. Army just grinded out first downs and ate the clock against UH awhile back.
Kahooilihala: A DC facing an option team like Navy or Army, it’s all assignment football. Somebody’s got to be on somebody, somebody on the dive, on the QB. You keep running it until the defense breaks down.
HPW: So these numbers are eye-popping to me. Your QB, Sky Ogata has a lot of yardage (1,702 scrimmage yards, 20 TDs), but only four interceptions in 199 pass attempts. Twelve games. One pick in every 50 passes is an incredibly efficient rate.
Kahooilihala: Sky’s a smart kid. Our percentage when we pass, is pretty high. (Note: Ogata has a 57-percent completion rate.) Coach Matt (Terukina), our OC, uses short routes. Our passing (routes) are 7, 8 yards at the longest.
HPW: I have to ask this, Coach Kui. After all these years of undersized players playing tough football, but struggling to pick up wins, now you’re 11-1. How do you keep that edge that pushed them to this point? How do they have the same fire when they’re no longer the underdogs?
Kahooilihala: The kids like being underdogs. I’ll be honest. All these years, we’ve been fighting. In our division, it’s competitive. All the teams in D-II are good. Every year, we start our offseason, summer ball, the kids set goals. We always say we’re trying to get to the top of the mountain in our division. We always take it one game at a time. We’re not good yet. We’re probably going to be the underdogs because we haven’t won a title yet. Then, we did that, but still yet, the kids’ mentality, it hasn’t really hit them yet. That week after the Kaimuki game in the stadium, we came back to school, back to business in the classroom, taking care of grades. They were excited. They had their moments over the weekend, but they came back to school, never talked about the game and went back to work.
HPW: It’s been two weeks since the OIA title game. What’s that been like?
Kahooilihala: A lot of film, lot of walk throughs.
HPW: Pac-Five’s defense has been stout, a lot of veterans. Their offense is still fairly inexperienced, but they make it all work somehow despite all the youth.
Kahooilihala: Pac-Five’s offense is good and we’ve got to make sure. Our DC, he’s worried, you never know what they’re going to do. They’re unpredictable. They can say they don’t have experienced QBs, but they’re good coaches.
HPW: They’ve run the ball a lot this year for a traditional spread team.
Kahooilihala: They run a rhino. That kind of offense gives us fits, too.
HPW: How many players do you have on varsity?
Kahooilihala: Fifth on varsity. Two of them might not play (injuries).
HPW: One of the most dominant defensive performances in OIA D-II that I can remember. I see a whole lot of 7s and 0s and 6s. You mentioned Marcus and Tamaki earlier. Who might the most underrated player you have on defense?
Kahooilihala: Caine (Fitiausi-Fung) is one of our outside linebackers. He plays hard, he comes across and he’ll hit you. He’ll go ’til the whistle blows, and he can cover guys, too. Because coach moves him around, sometimes down on the line at DE, and coach stands him up. They might overlook him because he’s not at one position. Stunt, blitz on the other side.
Marcus Hee was the one guy that Coach John was doing what he’s doing wit Caine early on in the season. So Marcus plays free safety, can play some LB, and he’d come and shut down quarterbacks. Against Kaimuki, (coach) had Marcus at OLB and put him back at safety. He had a game. He’s a hybrid guy and finished up at FS. Caine now is going to be that guy. We know guys are scouting, got film, and they’re watching. Coach John knows it, so we’ve got to move different guys around.
HPW: I have to ask this, just like any program that is starting to dominate its division. Is Roosevelt heading to Division I sometime soon?
Kahooilihala: I hope not. We’re going to stay in the D-II. We would need the line.
HPW: I remember way back when Papakolea had incredible athletes, a lot of them, and then I heard that a lot of families were moving out to the Leeward side. Hawaiian Homesteads. Are you getting more players from Papakolea now?
Kahooilihala: A lot of guys don’t know this about Papakolea, a lot of families moved to Ewa Beach, Kapolei, but they still have those young kids that are big. Guys forget that these are at Kamehameha. Some of my classmates are up there, their kids are at St. Francis, Kamehameha. Some are at Saint Louis. Marcus Hee was at Saint Louis, but he came over to us last year. He was going to go back at the beginning of this year, but decided he wanted to stay. He’s from Papakolea. (RB/DB) Aalona (Monteilh) was at Saint Louis. His dad (Anthony was the head JV coach at Saint Louis for eight years. His freshman year, he was one of two freshman that Coach Cal (Lee) pulled up to the varsity. After sophomore year, he transferred out.
HPW: What grade is he now?
Kahooilihala: He’s a junior. And Josh Maikui, he’s from Manoa, came over from Saint Louis.
HPW: Sixty-one years, finally an OIA title.
Kahooilihala: It’s the first time ever since we became an OIA league. It’s going to be tough. They know what’s in front of them. It’s one game at a time. You’ve got to win the day.
HPW: There’s been a lot of excitement from what I hear and see in social media.
Kahooilihala: Guys tell us that, too, some of the alumni. We tell the kids to stay hungry as we move forward, but you’ve got to be humble. You guys understand the sacrifice that we all made and took this journey together from the ending of January to now. Just remember what everybody did.
HPW: When this began three years ago, what was that process like for you?
Kahooilihala: Before I took over, I talked to Coach John (Chung, the athletic director) and he was telling me to put in. I wasn’t. When I was coaching with (previous head coach) Jeff (Azuma, ‘Are you going to put in?’ No, I’m not. I wasn’t thinking about it. He said, ‘Put in before I go outside.’ So the due date was Dec. 15, somewhere around there, and as we got closer, he said, put in. No. No. The day of before he closed it, ‘Did you put in your resume? Brah, you got one hour before I shut it down.’ Jeff and (former head coach Les) Parilla talked to me. You never know. I said what the hell. I did one real quick. I didn’t think anything of it. The following week, John tells me you have an interview with the principal, the committee. I didn’t think nothing of it.
The following week, he said, ‘I gotta talk to you about something. Eh, congratulations, you got the head coaching job.’ I never applied for head coach before. I just said, ‘Shoots, OK, here we go.’ I just went to work right there. I told myself, hey, we’re going to be all in or not. I had to go get the coaches. I talked to Matt and Ricky (Eusebio) (the first DC under Kahooilihala). They were all in. We had a plan. We met with the boys. We’re going to establish the run game, we’re bringing back the veer option. We’re getting these linemen off the line of scrimmage, we’re not going to have them sit. Not going to throw the ball, they’re getting off the line and going after guys.
HPW: Use their mobility instead of trying to always pass pro.
Kahooilihala: We’re not the biggest, right? In our district we don’t have the big guys like Farrington and Waianae, but you know what, the veer option gives us a chance to block them from different angles. For us, it’s our advantage. We have to establish something. That’s how it all started.
HPW: So you introduce the team to the classic veer offense. They must’ve been wondering what it is.
Kahooilihala: Yeah, they asked what is veer. We had to draw it up and give them the playbook, and this is how it’s going to be run and this.
HPW: Now Roosevelt is in the winner’s circle. I want to ask, who is the leader of your O-line?
Kahooilihala: Our left guard, Adam Soares. He’s the man.