Salanoa: ‘It will probably come down to wire’

Safety Jonah Soakai and the Rams are going hard in conditioning drills to prepare for Kapaa. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser
Safety Jonah Soakai and the Rams are going hard in conditioning drills to prepare for Kapaa. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser

In the frenzy of postseason football, the Radford Rams found another identity.

The Rams (12-0) aren’t just a run-first, no-holds-barred-defensive minded team. When pushed to the limits, they can adjust on the fly. Saturday’s 48-46 win over Konawaena pushed Radford someplace a bit uncomfortable, yet the result was soothing.

Radford threw the ball on the quick Wildcats, and when necessary, they rammed the ball between the tackles on the game’s most crucial drive, taking more than 5 minutes off the clock. That left the upstart Wildcats with just 12 seconds to score, and it wasn’t enough.

For a defense that had permitted less than 5 points per game, the whirlwind, hurry-up offense of Konawaena was a true test. The Rams settled down in the second half on defense, overcoming some miscues on offense to lock down just enough to advance to the championship game.

Kapaa, another dominant team in Division II, awaits in Friday afternoon’s final at the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships at Aloha Stadium. Like Radford, the top-seeded Warriors have enjoyed a perfect season (9-0). Like Radford, coach Phillip Rapozo’s team likes to spread the field with their four-wide formation only to gash and bash defenses behind a powerful offensive line.

“They remind me of Kaiser,” Radford middle linebacker Jordan Walker said. “Kaiser from three years ago.”

Radford coach Fred Salanoa has the Rams precisely where he wants. It’s a vibe of intensity with poise. Ice and fire.

“It will probably come down to the wire, I think. They’re a good team, 9-0 for a reason, the No. 1 seed for a reason, in the championship game for a reason,” Salanoa said. “They haven’t given up an offensive touchdown all season. We’ve got to find a way to get into the end zone. If we make sure we execute and minimize our mistakes, we’ll be all right.”

The Rams have studied their Kapaa game video and the week is progressing like any other week. Weight training right after school in and outside the weight room, right along the lane that leads from the gymnasium to the locker room. With John Velasco Field still off-limits due to renovation, it’s a busy lane with soccer teams making do, practicing on the available slices of grass near the locker room and portable classrooms. The girls basketball team works out on the sleek outside courts, unhindered by a mid-afternoon drizzle.

The small enrollment at Radford is a blessing in disguise. Everyone literally knows everyone. Teachers and administrators know every player. Their support — and constructive words — are taken well by the football team. Senior defensive end Dillon Sunday says the Rams take it all in stride.

“You walk down the hallways, teachers say, ‘Good job last week’, or sometimes they give us criticism. Sometimes they’ll tell us, ‘Close game, but good job’, ” Sunday said.

He couldn’t help but laugh at the devotion and scrutiny.

“We’re just getting ready for the game,” Sunday said, not mindful about Kapaa’s higher seeding until asked.

“At the end of the day, we are where we are, and we just have to play the game,” he said.

Walker, considered a Pac-12 Conference prospect by Salanoa, is one of the glue guys who keeps the team’s mentality balanced.

“It makes me feel great, just being able to be on the defense, not just about me, but the whole defense playing as one,” the 6-foot-1, 220-pound playmaker said. “That’s the thing about defense. We’re great people on campus and in the community, but once we step on the field, we’re a whole different person, a whole different creature, a whole different unit. We what we have to do to succeed and win.”

It’s a unit that hasn’t gotten the individual fanfare that the offense — and its juggernaut scoring prowess — has generated. Walker sees a lot of underrated talent on that side of the ball.

“Dillon, (linebacker David) Faletoi (6-1, 245), our DBs like Jonah (Soakai), (Sipa) Leafa (6-1, 180), (Brandon) Brady. The whole defense in general,” he said.

Walker was a freshman when Radford fielded one of the top defensive units in D-II.

“I remember playing with those boys. They were great defensive players. They had great speed,” Walker recalled. “It comes down to being ready mentally. Two years ago, we were physically ready. This year, our unit is closer and playing as one, being able to communicate on the field.”

Now all that remains is a big-game showdown with Kapaa. Radford has not rested in ages, not even with a perfect record. Walker doesn’t consider what they’ve done to be without flaws.

“Not quite,” he said. “Anybody can be undefeated, but you have to stay humble. All that matters is the last game.

The Rams, as much as any team in the postseason, have unveiled a few crafty trick plays on PAT situations.

“We have those tricks in our back pocket like all teams,” Salanoa said. “It comes down to using it at the right time, and our young men executing it. And let the fans enjoy it.”


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