The Pony Express lives.
Between Christian Payton and Michael Hayslett, the Radford Rams have a 1-2 combo at running back that can literally carry the offense. Payton rushed for 147 yards and four touchdowns, while Hayslett rumbled for 123 yards and two more TDs in Radford’s 62-20 victory over McKinley on Saturday night at Skippa Diaz Stadium.
The Rams are 3-0 after wins over Kaimuki (by forfeit), Pearl City (39-21) and now, McKinley. The have a homecoming matchup with title contender Kaiser on Friday night at John Velasco Stadium.
“We’ve got a big game. We’ll enjoy this win and get ready,” coach Fred Salanoa said.
“Pony Express” was a moniker given to the RB duo of Eric Dickerson and Craig James at SMU four decades ago. Between 1979 and ’82, Dickerson (4,450 rushing yards) and James (3,743) combined for 8,193 yards on the ground. Neither Payton nor Hayslett are 6 feet, 3 inches like Dickerson, but their interchangeability and explosiveness give Salanoa all kinds of wondrous opportunities.
“What it does is it allows us as coaches and as an offense to be more open with what we do. They can’t have a guy they key on, to give the other guy a rest, minimize the number of times he’s getting hit,” Salanoa said. “It gives us more options. Two guys with decent speed.”
Decent is quite an understatement and the longtime coach knows it.
“I’m always going to say the bare minimum,” the former Radford and Eastern Washington standout said.
Whether it was a basic dive or end-around runs, Payton and Hayslett seem to have a separate gear that the Tigers’ defense couldn’t match. Radford is 2-0 and didn’t go very deep into the playbook. Quarterback Kalob Victorino-Avilla threw the ball a modest 19 times, but was highly efficient with 163 yards (8.6 yards per attempt) and three TDs.
“Just running the ball, that was fun. I wasn’t surprised because the line did their job and I did mine,” Payton said.
At 5 feet, 9 inches and 155 pounds, Payton runs like someone at least 190. He has a combined bench press, squat and dead lift total of nearly 1,000 pounds — one of the coveted benchmarks in the Radford weight room. Hayslett, at 5-9, 160, is one of only five Rams in the current 1,000-pound club.
Sheer power alone, though, doesn’t always produce on the gridiron. Payton knows his trech men by heart.
“My left tackle is Jabez (Aloalii-Maanaima). There’s Mataio (Tauanu‘u) (at left guard), Mau (Malotumau Fano, center), Kaiden (Writesel, right guard) and Garrison (Melanson, right tackle),” Payton said.
Hayslett also plays on defense and registered one of the hardest tackles of the night. He wears jersey number 21.
“My original number was 2 in Peewee,” he said. “But 21 is from my favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, and Ezekiel Elliott.”
Hayslett may not consider himself a backup running back, nor should he. He would start for a lot of other teams.
“I think it’s great because I play a lot of defense, so Chris can hop in and after he returns a kick, I can give him a break. It’s super nice. It keeps everybody fresh 100 percent of the time,” he said. “We believe we can be great.”
With a rushing attack that dominated, Jack Carlson (six receptions, 93 yards, two TDs) was in single coverage and thrived.
Radford defense came up with stops consistently, limiting McKinley’s offense to minus-41 yards on the ground. That didn’t slow the Tigers down, though. Time and time again, Dustin Chow launched bombs downfield to his speedy corps of receivers. Chow completed less than 50 percent of his spirals (18 for 41) and was picked off twice, but the tenacity of McKinley’s aerial commitment is astounding to see in person.
Equally impressive is the receivers’ level of conditioning. Michael Papa hauled in touchdowns of 65 and 55 yards, finishing with four catches for 201 yards. Joab Cruz was another busy Tiger with seven receptions for 68 yards. Nathen Rodriguez had three catches for 61 yards, including a 61-yard TD.
Chow finished with 380 passing yards. The Tigers lost by a bundle, but man, there was never a dull moment whether Chow was hurling the pigskin downfield or running from Radford’s constant pressure (four sacks). The sheer number of quick scores and added possessions for both teams made it a statistical anomaly.
“Sooner or later, something’s going to fall in somebody’s hands and it did for McKinley,” Salanoa said. “What it shows, me knowing Kale and their staff, they’re going to show that fighter’s mentality every single time. They’re changing the culture and mindset.”
True enough. In pure run-and-shoot fashion, Chow made his reads and gave his receivers a chance. It’s likely the Tigers will air the ball out whether they’re down by 35 or up by 35.
“It could be, ‘Why don’t you just stop the bleeding and get out of here,’ but he’s showing his team and everyone else affiliated with McKinley they’re not going to lay down,” Salanoa said. “Keep swinging that sword until something comes rolling, your head or your arm. That’s how I look at it, teaching his kids, ‘We’re going to keep fighting.’ With coach Kale (Ane) there, they’re going to do great things and turn that program around quicker than most people think. They’re a bunch of tough kids.”
Radford reserves got ample playing time in the mercy-rule situation.
“Everyone got film time, a chance to be evaluated,” Salanoa said.
The last time Radford was in D-II, the Rams won the state title back in 2015 under Salanoa. Coming back in ’21 from a cancelled ’20 season, dealing with the restrictions and safety issues of the pandemic — the Rams are just grateful to be on the field.
“I think in these unfortunate circumstances, they’re not allowing everyone (spectators) to come, I wish it was different so they could see all the hard work these guys are putting in,” Salanoa said. “Hopefully, they can come and support their children and their schools all across the state.”
At Radford, there is no restriction on goals and dreams. The ’19 team was young, green and winless in Division I. Their hopes for a turnaround in ’20 were dashed. Now, the ’21 Rams look like a D-II title favorite in midseason form.
“We believe we can be state champions,” Payton said. “We bring it up every once in awhile. We focus on us. We don’t look too far ahead.”