When Castle went 0-3 to start its season, coach John Hao knew it was time for a change. The team’s pure pass offense was executing at a rate indicative of its record, and Hao held auditions for the team’s next quarterback.
That’s when senior Senituli Punivai stepped up. He was a cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver and running back in his two years of varsity ball for the Knights, but never a quarterback. Not even in his Pop Warner days during the third grade in Kahaluu, where he played on the defensive line.
Hao and the rest of his staff decided the offense would center around Punivai’s athletic ability, which meant throwing less and running more. It was back to basics, and the team scrambled to learn a new offensive scheme during the season.
“When I first made that change, it was a shock in the beginning for everyone. I’m the kind of person that’s gonna make a change if there’s no forward movement for our team,” Hao said. “We made that adjustment, put Tuli at the helm and we did stutter against Waipahu the first time. Even the first game came out to execution. From there, we just took it step by step during practice.”
The Knights lost their next game 35-7 to Waipahu to fall to 0-4. But the team grew each game, and what ensued in the coming weeks was nothing short of spectacular. The Knights won their next four games and Punivai, who was featured in Tuesday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser, became a breakout star.
Punivai finished his season with 1,247 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, good for second in the entire state behind St. Francis’ Jonan Aina-Chaves, who ran for 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Despite being new to the quarterback position, he also threw for 523 yards and six touchdowns on 33-for-63 passing. He also caught eight passes for 29 yards.
Then there was his performance against then-undefeated Moanalua in the OIA Division I playoffs on Oct. 20. Punivai more than rose to the occasion, racking up 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns to eliminate Na Menehune 28-14, who were ranked No. 7 in the state at the time by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
That came after a three-interception, three-touchdown performance, all in the first half, against Moanalua during the regular season.
The playoff victory landed Castle in the OIA D-I championship game for the first time since 2002. The Knights fell again to Waipahu at Aloha Stadium, 32-3. But the in-season turnaround was remarkable by all accounts. To Hao, the team wouldn’t even be in that position if it weren’t for Punivai’s heroics.
“He’s a very coachable kid. Always on a positive note, just doing whatever’s best for the team,” Hao said. “He’s never an individual. That’s the reason why he ended up playing QB anyway.”
Hao also credited Punivai’s backfield mates in Samuel Judd, Keanu Tilton and Bruce Pakele for keeping defenses in check and off balance. Punivai praised the rest of the team throughout the duration of the interview for the feature.
“It was enjoyment. This team, special thanks to all my defense. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t go as far. Special thanks to the man above for just giving us the opportunity and for keeping our dream going,” Punivai said. “The journey’s been great. But thanks to my coaching staff, the offense for just believing and just coming up with the hard work. We made it to where we’re supposed to be.”
Punivai is unsure of where he’ll go to college, although he wants to keep playing. He currently has no offers and admits he wasn’t on college radars when the season began. Now that his season is over, he says he’ll ramp up his efforts.
Although Hao sees Punivai as someone with Division I talent, he personally hopes he lands at a smaller school.
“Tuli has athletic ability above everybody in his grade right now. He’s just super athletic,” Hao said. “If he doesn’t get a full ride to a D-I and he gets a full ride to a smaller school, I would talk to him and really recommend that he goes to the smaller school. The bottom line is, the best gift you can give to your parents or guardians is free college tuition.”
Either way, a change will be coming for Punivai when his senior year ends. As evidenced by his production on the field, he’ll be ready for it. But the most profound change he’s seen comes off of it.
Punivai hasn’t lived with either parent for a decade. After he was born on Oahu, he moved to Tonga for the early parts of his childhood. His parents weren’t allowed to re-enter the country because of complications with their Tongan citizenships. A year after he moved back to Kahaluu, his father, Tali, passed away when Senituli was 9-years-old.
“He taught me a lot of things. I really miss him a lot. If it wasn’t for him, my family wouldn’t have changed this way but I just gotta be strong and look forward,” said Punivai, who dedicated the season to his late father. “He’s in a better place right now and he’s always watching me and giving me the blessing in football.”
His mother, Suesa, lives in Tonga and the two talk often. He misses her, too.
“She’ll always call me and talk to me. She gives me motivation to stay strong and put in the work, and listen to my brothers,” Punivai said. “Just giving me that talk as a mom and telling me to do the right things.”
Senituli lives with his brother Tevita. Tevita and his wife, Darrellyn, have been Senituli’s caretakers since he moved back to the United States. Of the six Punivai brothers, Tevita is the eldest while Senituli is the youngest.
“I’m the oldest of the brothers and that’s my duty — to watch my siblings. That was my responsibility to get Tuli to graduate and have a future,” Tevita said. “It’s not only me he has, it’s the whole family, too. It takes a village to raise a child. Definitely.”
Tevita recalls having to re-teach Senituli the English language when he returned to the Windward side all those years ago. Tevita can’t help but be a proud brother when he watched Senituli’s games this season, who also came a long way away from the gridiron.
“Oh, yeah. Just seeing him as be a leader, that said it all right there. Win or lose, to show he was a leader, that’s my goal. To be a leader and not a follower,” Tevita said. “We’re all proud. All our hard work paid off it shows in where Tuli is today and where he comes from.”
Naturally, Senituli was quick to laud those around him again.
“I have good supporters. Growing up, you just gotta be strong, you know? I was close with my dad, he taught me some things that I wouldn’t have been taught right now. My brothers have my back 100 percent and I want to thank all of them,” Punivai said. “My family has been there for me since I was young, all the way until now. Family-wise, it’s been tough but my family makes sure I get things done, they push me forward. I’d like to thank all of them for just doing that. I wouldn’t ask for more.”
With Punivai gone next year, Hao plans for the team to pass the ball more again next year. He also wants Pop Warner and other youth teams in the area to get on the same page with what Castle runs, like many other schools on Oahu do with their programs. In spite of Punivai’s upcoming departure, Hao feels as though his impact on the program will be felt even when he’s gone.
“I wish that I had 52 of him. I got a bunch of other kids that think the same way and it’s a culture change, and we’re headed in the right direction,” Hao said. “Ultimately, it should never be about a player, it should never be about a coach. It’s always about what’s best for the team.
“Tuli has that thought process in his head and it spread like wildfire. It was contagious. More and more of our team players bought in. They were buying into what our philosophies were as a team and getting the kids to play all as one.”