For decades, Bobby Watson, later joined by Garret Tihada as co-head coach, maintained consistency in the Lahainaluna football program.
That steady influence from the coaching staff, a collection of long-time Lunas, did more than create tradition. The Lunas are two-time Division II state champions, again seeded No. 1 as the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Championships resume this weekend.
Lahainaluna went 9-0 overall and 8-0 in the combined schedule of the Maui Interscholastic League and earned a bye in the state tourney’s opening week. The Lunas host OIA champion Roosevelt on Saturday at Sue Cooley Stadium in the semifinal round.
TIhada chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday.
HPW: The Luna offense has always been fascinating to watch. The wing-T origin. The pre-snap motion. Jet sweep. It’s also amazing that the Kansas City Chiefs stole big parts of Lahainaluna’s offense. But I don’t get to see a lot of Lunas football. What’s it been like this year?
Tihada: The last couple of years we got away from the wing-T and just multiple formations. Any coach that says everything is their own stuff is probably lying.
HPW: Does Roosevelt remind you of anyone you’ve played?
Tihada: They don’t really remind us of anybody. They do a little bit of different stuff, not the true triple option, but a version of it and we don’t get to see it. Even defensively nobody blitzes as much as they do. They’re just a totally different animal.
HPW: They can mix it up, too. They’ve been efficient in their passing game.
Tihada: They throw the ball pretty well. They are in a spread, so anytime you’re in a spread, your intention is to throw the ball.
HPW: I’m going to ask about this before I forget. Some football fans believe Lahainaluna’s success should dictate a move to Division I. I believe it should always be optional, as it is, for smaller schools. What’s your perspective on it?
Tihada: Our opinion is on Maui since we play both D-I and D-II opponents, I think for MIL reps, if you are the best on Maui you (should) go to D-I (state tournament), and second place go to D-II. Us and the BIIF are the only leagues that play inter-division. Then nobody should say whether we’re in D-I or D-II or out of the tournament completely.
HPW: That makes good sense. And the flexibility also means that the bigger schools won’t get left out of a postseason opportunity. But is something like that an option, or is it not permitted by the league or HHSAA right now?
Tihada: I’ve been told it’s the HHSAA.
HPW: Maybe it has to do with transportation and rosters, having everything set early because of the size of football teams.
Tihada: I don’t know what the sense in that is. You only start looking at your opponents only two or three weeks in advance anyway.
HPW: Are the bigger schools OK with a flexible format?
Tihada: I don’t know if Maui High or Baldwin would do it if they were in second place. They might have a lot of pride. The last few years, the D-II was better than D-I in some places statewide. Konawaena beat Hilo (last year) and we beat our D-I opponents.
HPW: Let’s talk about the game. Normally, the byproduct of Lahainaluna’s offense is that statistics are spread out the way the offense is unpredictable. But Joshua Tihada (coach’s nephew), is having a remarkable season.
Tihada: We actually did terrible in stats. Joshua is up there in scoring and second in rushing (MIL), but other than that we had a huge drop-off. The next guy in the top 15 for scoring was kickers.
HPW: Yeah, you’ve got other RBs who have scored multiple touchdowns. Are the in-play decisions reads by your QBs, or pre-set from your coaches upstairs?
Tihada: Everything comes from upstairs. Even Nainoa (Irish), because we run so many sets, the last two years, the least amount of QBs we’ll run in the game is four. Last game, we had 10 QBs. Three of them were linemen in their last MIL game.
HPW: This is like Boise State with its personnel packages, but to the extreme.
Tihada: We started that two years ago the first time we won the state title. We weren’t very good that year and we decided to use the kids to whatever strengths they had. We started with four or five QBs and kept it like that. Nainoa will play one-third of the game.
HPW: You also have playmakers in the Stoner brothers, Etuati and Esekiuelu.
Tihada: The younger brother (Esekielu) throws a lot.
HPW: As your offense constantly changes personnel, it must be challenging for defenses to recognize which QB is the runner and which is the better passer. Kinda chaotic if they don’t see who’s who.
Tihada: We’ve heard that from other coaches that it’s hard to prepare for. Eventually defenses catch up. Defensive coordinators are very smart.
HPW: Do you guys go uptempo sometimes to create more problems?
Tihada: We never huddle, but we don’t go hurry up unless it’s 2-minute situation.
HPW: That’s still a lot of pre-snap mental gymnastics for any high school defense.
Tihada: They have to be able to stop the option, power package, unbalanced packages. We went from using 14, 15 guys on offense to using 25 guys. So it’s good for the kids. More kids get in the game. More are mentally prepared on the sidelines. Kids love it. Coaches love it. It’s a headache and a half for me.
HPW: Your defensive scoring stat is off the charts. Who’s been consistent and reliable there?
Tihada: Nyles Pokipala-Waiohu has been a defensive leader. Our defense plays so well together that they really move, the 11 move as one. The stats this year are ridiculous. It’s amazing to watch on defense this year.
HPW: Is this one of the best defensive units Lahainaluna has ever had?
Tihada: Stat-wise this is No. 1. Some of us we were talking about it after practice one day. We’ve never seen it like this.
HPW: That’s amazing considering Lahainaluna is a mid-sized school. What’s the enrollment like at Baldwin and Maui?
Tihada: I heard Maui is either No. 1 or 2 in the state.
HPW: Wow, I thought Kihei kids wound up at Baldwin.
Tihada: The Kihei kids used to go to Baldwin. Their better athletes go to Maui now.
HPW: Before he retired, I remember Curits Lee (former Maui coach) saying that a lot of his best linemen came from Upcountry and that it wouldn’t be the same once the new schools (King Kekaulike, Kamehameha-Maui) opened.
Tihada: I know he had a lot of athletes from Upcountry and throughout they had a lot of big kids and athletes. But Maui has made a huge, huge improvement from last year and they’re starting to get the concept of offseason training to build the program. There’s so much involved, players, parents, community, school administration. You need everything in place for a program.
HPW: I’ve been seeing this across different sports, how consistent programs rise and become champions. Now they don’t actually have the motivation of being underrated or being underdogs. How do you and your staff overcome the status of being top seeded, being favorites?
Tihada: I know the kids know that we’re the two-time defending champions. I know it’s hard to believe, but they don’t believe that kind of stuff, because the next group doesn’t talk about it. All they’re reminded of is that was last year’s seniors’ team. Our assistant coaches do a great job of constantly reminding them and pushing them in the offseason. They understand the offseason determines what happens during the regular season.
HPW: I think people who aren’t on Maui or just focused on their own leagues elsewhere tend to base classification mostly or entirely on wins and losses. But it’s not easy at a smaller community and program.
Tihada: We know that everything is so fragile. We could lose one of our coaches, and that would have a huge effect. Kenui Watson (Bobby’s son) and Lawrence Kauhaahaa are the key for our offseason success. They push these kids in the weight room. and once he took over the offseason training, that’s when we took off. One thing, if we lose him, if we lose our Big Boys program, if we lose our speed and quickness coach, everything is so fragile.
HPW: What is the most underrated aspect of the Lunas program?
Tihada: We’re so, so proud of our kids. Our first-quarter grades came in and we have 30 kids with a 3.0 or higher and additional four kids with 4.0 or higher. That blew our minds. I couldn’t believe it.
HPW: That’s pretty insane. Is it about study hall?
Tihada: For this quarter, I think it was a lot of it is their home life, their upbringing. It all starts from home.
HPW: This is the kind of elite academic level that creates new expectations, maybe.
Tihada: It’s now the new standard. It can be done. It should be done. Just like how we talk about the great teams we’ve had in the past, and how they got there. We’ll keep talking about this, 34 guys who did excellent in school.