Road to Titletown: Brawn and big brains

Mililani's Vavae Malepeai scored a touchdown against Kahuku's stiff defense. Jamm Aquinio/Star-Advertiser
Mililani’s Vavae Malepeai scored a touchdown against Kahuku’s stiff defense. Jamm Aquinio/Star-Advertiser

It’s been a weekend (or two) chock full of prep football. Doubleheaders are nice, but great twinbills are unbeatable.

The OIA title games at Aloha Stadium on Friday began, for players, coaches, bus drivers, fans and media dweebs (myself included) with the awesomeness of being stuck in rainy pre-Halloween traffic. I was stuck for almost 2 hours getting from Kakaako to the stadium, but I should count my blessings. Billy “Bonecrusher” Hull was trapped among the four-wheeled sardine cans for 2.5 hours, lucky guy.

We all made it to Halawa, apparently. And weather at the stadium pretty much cleared up except for some healthy doses of rain now and then.

The Nanakuli-Pearl City Expressway
• Nanakuli’s 37-36 overtime win over Pearl City for the OIA Division II title was just the latest in a long line of dramatic victories over the Chargers. Pearl City had already lost to Nanakuli in the JV title game two years ago. A few weeks ago, a 21-7 lead at Nanakuli dissipated in the Golden Hawk’s 28-21 comeback win.

Pearl City's Dominic Maneafaiga eludes the defense of Nanakuli's Randy Manewa. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser
Pearl City’s Dominic Maneafaiga eludes the defense of Nanakuli’s Randy Manewa. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser

“We’re just blessed. This whole season, we’ve been blessed,” said wide receiver Isain Wong, who caught the go-ahead TD in overtime.

On Friday, Pearl City led 15-0 and seemed to have control. Nanakuli was in horrendous referee clinic demo mode, jumping off almost non-stop in the first half with an incredible amount of illegal procedure calls. (I didn’t write the game story and didn’t keep stats, but I don’t remember seeing that many false starts in 25 years of covering preps.) Coach Keala Watson said later that, oh yes, he had some talking to do with his team. Credit to him. He didn’t burn more than one time out during that flurry of yellow flags.

Watson and some of the Golden Hawks — QB Kale Kanehailua, WR Keanu Momoa, to be exact — acknowledged that their offensive linemen may have been a little nervous at the start. Momoa played for Saint Louis as a sophomore and had been in the stadium as a player.

“I guess a lot of guys never played in the stadium. It’s their first time,” he said.

Nanakuli didn’t flinch in the second half.

“We were too excited. This whole place was loud. That’s why we had to go on the (ball snap) movement. Watch the ball,” Kanehailua said of their successful adjustment.

Two-way lineman Lyle Tuiloma is a believer in the watch-the-ball methodology for O-linemen.

“This teacher from our school, Mr. Pacheco, said we should go off (ball snap) movement if the crowd is loud. I stressed that to my center and my offense. Say ‘ready, set’ and then hike the ball. It worked.”

By the second half, it was Pearl City that unraveled with infractions, including procedure calls. There were two penalties, in particular, that proved most pivotal. First, a 5-yard call while they were already inside their 10-yard line, clinging to a 22-21 lead. That pushed the Chargers back to their 3, and a moment later, the snap to their punter was high. He had to jump, but it wasn’t high enough and the ball slipped through his fingertips and out of the end zone. Safety. Nanakuli led for the first time.

Then came the extra-point try in OT with PC down one point after scoring on a nice TD pass from Jordan Taamu to Keelan Domingo-Ishikawa. The Chargers were late making a sub, delay of game was called, and their Ironman, the always reliable Dominic Maneafaiga, sliced the kick wide right.

“Two years again, we beat them in JV championships, so it’s the same thing all over again,” Kanehailua said.

As the Golden Hawks celebrated, some in near disbelief, I couldn’t help feeling horribly for Maneafaiga, a workhorse kick returner/running back/wide receiver/kicker who had played another outstanding game (10 receptions, 143 yards and eight carries, 22 yards). Pearl City had used another placekicker before, but stuck with Maneafaiga in this big game. Maybe it was too much work for the senior. Maybe those extra 5 yards really were costly.

Both teams had so many outstanding individual performances that were ignited by great team chemistry. Even the defenses came up with tremendous stops, though the score might indicate otherwise.

I really was thinking we were heading to three or four OT periods, and I probably wasn’t alone in that thought. It was, and will always be, an instant classic and epic battle that will remain fun to watch on video. The only consolation for the Chargers, as coach Robin Kami told Nick Abramo later, is that they get a “second life” in the state tourney. Going to Kapaa, or just playing Kapaa at Vidinha Stadium in Lihue, is not going to be easy. The Warriors have upended Kauai’s dynasty, and though Kelii Morgado is not the coach now, he set the foundation for their uprising and ascent to the KIF title.

Don’t be fooled, Oahu dwellers. They play some real good football in the KIF. Always have.

Nanakuli will head to the Big Island to play Kamehameha-Hawaii, which is in Keaau, which is a few miles from the ongoing lava flow. Talk about an intriguing matchup between some country-strong teams. What really makes Nanakuli, and Pearl City, for that matter, real interesting is that both teams are balanced. They throw the ball much more than most OIA D-II teams that have qualified for states in recent years. And though the BIIF has some outstanding individual players, and though KS-Hawaii has really blossomed under the guidance of Coach Dan Lyons (and former AD Bob Wagner), there isn’t a whole lot of passing in that league.

Weather plays a major role in the way BIIF games are played, in the way coaches coach. When you don’t see a lot of passing attacks for a three-month span, it’s not easy to adjust in an elimination-game scenario. Then again, if the weather is wet on Kauai and the Big Island, advantage run-first teams. Kapaa and KS-Hawaii are more than capable of throwing the ball, and Nanakuli and Pearl City are capable of running the ball. But the teams that are used to downpours will have that slight edge.

I don’t know if it’s true now, but back in the 1990s, BIIF teams had the option of switching out their leather footballs for rubber footballs during those rainy nights. We’ll see.

Mililani's Joshua Butac  celebrates with Bronson Ramos after scoring a touchdown. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser
Mililani’s Joshua Butac celebrates with Bronson Ramos after scoring a touchdown. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser

The Other Side of Mililani
We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Tuli Wily-Matagi would’ve led Kahuku to an upset win over Mililani. When Trojans LB Sergio Urena hustled all the way to the sideline to upend Wily-Matagi on a 20-yard run, it seemed like a relatively normal tackle. But Wily-Matagi never saw Urena coming from the right side. If his peripheral vision had picked up Urena, he may have been able to gird himself some. Instead, he flipped over sideways, landed on the side of his head and suffered a concussion.

It was unfortunate for Kahuku, to say the least. But it led to a few interesting twists.

1. Kahuku’s backup QB was sophomore Samuta Avea, a tremendously talented basketball player who has great potential in football, too. Only problem was, he was green. Not a lot of reps. Not a lot of experience on the field. You could see his progress from one series to the next, to the point where he was much more comfortable in the pocket. But he was no Tuli, and nobody else was. It was a tough, almost unfair situation for the young Avea, a 6-foot-5 guard who is probably one of the Top 10 hoopsters in the state.

2. The injury might be enough to sideline Wily-Matagi for at least one more week. That’s not a medical report. It’s just the plain fact that concussions are treated with carefully detailed protocol these days. It’s clearly best for all athletes that it’s come to this, and a side blow like the one Wily-Matagi took is one of the worst ways to get concussed. So, refraining from risk is key. Can Kahuku get past Hilo without their starting QB?

The answer is yes, but it’s certainly not as definite. Hilo is a smashmouth team — featuring hard-nosed RB Tristin Spikes — that might seem like a perfect foe for the Red Raiders. But the Sabers have one advantage for sure: their QB is seasoned and Kahuku’s is not. A week of heavy reps should help Avea plenty, though. And if Wily-Matagi can get better with a week of rest while Kahuku gets past Hilo, it’s a win-win for Big Red.

3. Mililani went into stealth mode after Wily-Matagi’s injury. Coach Rod York has transformed into an offensive genius the past few years, tutored by some of the best minds in the prep game. But we got to see his defensive roots on Friday.

Kahuku's Keala Santiago intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Mililani's Timoteo Kalakaua. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser
Kahuku’s Keala Santiago intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Mililani’s Timoteo Kalakaua. Jamm Aquino / Star-Advertiser

“They lost their quarterback and it really affected them, like it would us, like it would to us. We would have to change it up,” York said.

The Trojans unleashed their defense when Avea entered the game. Kahuku’s ground attack never recovered, not with a near full house coming at them. Salanoa-Alo Wily (nine carries, 70 yards) was a booming wrecking ball out of the tailback spot after Kesi Ah-Hoy got dinged up again. But with no effective passing game, even Wily — playing full-time at DT, a 270-pound former Kamehameha fullback — was cornered and curtailed by the Trojans.

The Trojans stayed in no-huddle, but the fast pace wasn’t fast any more. They opened the lead on a TD pass by McKenzie Milton, and then went up 13 points on another perfectly-thrown TD strike by their junior QB. From there, it was Vavae Malepeai left and Vavae Malepeai right. To Malepeai’s credit, he knows and loves the game, and more so his team, enough to accept that role. Moving the ball on the ground, eating the clock, punting and letting the men of Troy work defensively.

It was a classic championship approach by York and his staff, and their players followed suit. Defense does win championships, and though my hunch is that Mililani would’ve won a shootout (had Wily-Matagi never gotten hurt), York and his defense were satisfied with a grind-out victory.

4. Kahuku had mostly ups this season, but everybody remembers the down, a seven-turnover, 20-19 loss at Kaiser. It was their only defeat, and with the offense showing a dynamic, diversified look, Kahuku’s defense also looked fast, physical and up to the challenge against Mililani’s potent offense. It was the first time all season I’d seen a defense bring it like that for a full 48 minutes against the Trojans.

Mililani is clearly well coached, deeply talented, deeply thick on the roster. Even the TD passes by Milton, who threw two picks in a game for the first time since Aug. 30, were covered very well by the Red Raiders. He just happens to have such a great touch with great accuracy. His receivers just happen to be that skilled and focused, even their middle-tier guys like Joshua Butac and Makana Tauai.

“Kahuku lost their quarterback and that obviously changed their momentum on offense,” York said. “They struggled with their second-string quarterback and our defense bailed us out. Several times, they had the ball in scoring position. Credit Kahuku. They always play hard. They’re big, physical and fast. The thing you can’t measure is their heart. They play for the community. It showed. It showed out there. I’m so proud of those kids. It’s always tough to go against Kahuku, but it’s always an honor. We have much respect for them, their community and their love for football. But we had to work. We had a couple of injuries that affected our chemistry. That’s not an excuse, but we’ve got to get better.”

Andru Tovi (leg) and Derek Fetui-Suapaia (wrist) battled injuries.

“Derek played with a full cast on his wrist. To his credit, he came out and fought. He soldiered up,” York said.

Crowded House
Nanakuli had a 5:30 p.m. kickoff, but still brought a huge crowd to the stadium. They’re plenty loud at home games in the Valley — by the way, those Defend the Valley T-shirts are pretty cool — but they were extremely impassioned and fun in the title game. Their crowd is heavy with community and family, much like a Neighbor-Island audience.

Kahuku brought their crowd, though not as big as I’d expected. Former Kahuku girls basketball coach Wendy Anae was there, and she explained it: “Halloween.” It’s true. Parents have to do the Halloween night thing with their little kids, no way around it. Then they can go home, turn on the TV and catch their team play. The game didn’t kick off until 9 p.m. or so, so it was great timing for the fans who had to stay back home.

Pearl City brought a modest number of fans, but their band sat in the orange section. That’s where nobody escapes the rain, and like Nanakuli’s band, they just didn’t care about getting cold and wet. That’s a real band.

Mililani has a real band, too. Real huge, real talented, and always playing some of the most interesting (i.e. current) tunes around. The Trojans’ brought their crowd, too, but again, I thought there would be more yellow shirts in the facility. Rain has its effects, to be sure.

The Year 2014
The OIA has been a showcase for smashmouth, big-boy football all these years, but coaches like Nelson Maeda of Castle didn’t hesitate to install modern-age concepts like the four-wide (run-and-shoot) many seasons ago. Nolan Tokuda and his staff implemented a variety of offensive wrinkles at Leilehua. More and more, the bar gets higher in OIA coaching ranks.

We saw that in the playoffs and we saw it that big time in the title games. York and first-year Kahuku coach Lee Leslie have expanded on what their programs did — with success — in previous years. York has gone further, of course, by guiding the Trojans to two OIA D-I titles in a row.

Robin Kami of Pearl City quietly, thoroughly got his team to reach as closely to its potential as any squad. They aren’t deep, but they have skilled players — and just enough tenacity and motor defensively — and they get put to use so well with Jordan Taamu delivering precision strikes from the shotgun. Having a standout lineman like Kordell Vaa is a big help, too.

Nanakuli has balance, talent and discipline. The team always lines up in rows when singing its alma mater. They never lost confidence, even down 15-0.

“When the game’s on the line, we count on them,” Watson said. “That’s one thing they’ve got. They never quit. It doesn’t matter what the score is, they’re going to finish through. I don’t take any credit for teaching it to them. They’ve just got it.”

Watson has gotten a lot out of his squad, too, utilizing a nice group of receivers and a stud lineman in Tuiloma.

“I try to keep my team calm, every game is just another game. We have to stay focused in our mind and stay focused, stay disciplined,” said Tuiloma, who has committed to Colorado.

Their defense has been fantastic, arguably as good as the unit from two seasons ago. But it’s the balanced offense, with its rollout-style draw play, the willingness to let Kanehailua air it out, that makes defenses have to guess more than ever.

Four title-game teams with balanced offenses. That’s something we might not have seen in the OIA just a few years ago, let alone a few decades prior. Smashmouth still has its place, but the Aerial Age is upon us in the state’s biggest public-school league. Raise the bar, students of the game reach higher.


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