Championship material, maybe.
At 2-1 in OIA Division I, title town is a little less distant for Aiea. After a 43-21 win over Castle on Friday, Na Alii can reliably count on two things that the late, great Dick Tomey valued.
Special teams. Defense.
All the offensive fireworks that came in the second half — Aiea led 13-7 at the break — were a relief to the 300 or so fans clad in forest green and white at Radford’s James Velasco Stadium. It was Bryson Boyea Quiton, holder Geronimo Ulgaran and long snapper Thiessen Wright who provided consistency from the opening minute, when Ulgaran took a quick screen pass and bolted 65 yards for a touchdown.
Boyea Quiton hit field goals of 30 and 35 yards in the first half. As a snapper/holder/kicker trio, they get a thumbs up from head coach Wendell Say.
“I think they’re better than average. We just got our kicker back. He broke his collarbone in our first week of practice in September. He’s a good receiver, dove for the ball and slightly fractured it,” Say said.
Not to say the Aiea special teams were perfect, but they were definite advantage on the whole. In the second half, Wright had a boo-boo on a PAT snap for Aiea’s second-to-last touchdown, but Ulgaran escaped traffic and found a target: linebacker/tight end Chaysen Lopez.
“(The snap) bounced, Geronimo tried to put it down and he muffed it. I’m surprised they didn’t tackle him. He held it a long time. He has sprained finger from the last game. We thought he broke that finger, but it’s a bad sprain. That’s where the bye has proven good for us to heal,” Say said.
It was a well-prepared defensive unit, coming off a bye week, that kept a lid on Castle’s speedy playmakers. The Knights scored on a pick-six and kickoff return, but didn’t get on the board offensively until the third quarter. The Knights got two scintillating plays from Coby Tanioka on an 84-yard kick return and a 63-yard TD pass, but Na Alii contained Castle QB Daunte Ching for most of the night.
Castle finished with 159 yards of total offense.
“We knew their money guys, No. 4 (Kala Estacado-Matthews), No. 21 (Tanioka) and No. 3 (Ching). Those guys could kill us with their speed and they did until 4 got hurt,” Aiea defensive coordinator Mika Liilii said. “21 took one back to the house, and 3 was a scrambling quarterback and was hard to get.”
With only two teams qualifying for the playoffs, and only five regular-season games, each battle is essentially an elimination contest. Before the postponement of OIA football back in August, Aiea had 95 players combined in their varsity and JV programs. Now, they have half that number playing some of the best football in Division I.
“We’re making progress. These kids played hard,” Liilii said. “They did what we expected, but we had some things that we’ve got to clean up on. We’ve got a bye week, so it’ll work out pretty good for us.”
Lopez, at 6 feet, 2 inches and 230 pounds, only plays tight end on special teams. Aiea’s four-wide, shotgun offense means he focuses primarily on defense.
Cornerback Bishop Foumai can catch the ball on a dead run. He picked off a deep ball by Ching in the first quarter, outrunning the wide receiver on a go route to make the haul in the corner of the end zone.
“Bishop’s undersized, but he plays big every time. He had a pick tonight. We matched him up with their biggest guy,” Liilii said.
“He plays bigger than he looks,” Say added. “He could be (a receiver). He practices for emergencies if we need him. We want to keep him as fresh as possible as a cover guy.”
Lopez was impressed by the play, too.
“It was good. It was nice. He beat the receiver. Good play by him,” he said.
Having a reliable cornerback meant Aiea’s defense could contain Castle’s other playmakers.
“The game plan was to stop them on the rollout, and we did what we did,” Lopez said. “We locked them down. I had a sack. It was all coach Mika’s plan.”
Defensive end Logan Rouse (6-5, 210) and linebacker Macen Halemano also combined on sacks.
Aiea got a well-deserved day off on Saturday.
“It’s good to have a bye next week,” Say said. “We told the kids to stay healthy and safe.”
Conditioning, he added, makes a difference. While Castle’s offense struggled at times, its hustling defense — four interceptions in all — began to wilt in the second half.
“That’s why we condition so much. We’ve got to be in better shape than everyone else,” Say said. “Sometimes our kids grumble, but we don’t run as much as we used to.”
Aiea’s volatile offense didn’t have deep connections with the exception of a 25-yard toss from Eziekiel Olie to 6-2 wide receiver Jayden Chanel. He is listed as an old-school “SE,” or split end, on the roster.
Most of Olie’s offensive success came on short and intermediate passes, many on play-action. Running back Kaimana Lale-Saole finished with 99 rushing yards and a TD on 14 carries, setting up Olie’s bullet spirals from sideline to sideline.
Olie, a 6-1, 190-pound sophomore, had 342 passing yards and five total touchdowns along with the four picks. His arm strength is there, but without a freshman season in 2020, he and many quarterbacks around the state are making up for that lack of game experience.
“He’s still growing. His freshman year, he was only 5-8,” Say noted. “I anticipate him growing a few more inches.”
Aiea starts one senior on offense and three on defense. Ulgaran, who finished with seven catches for 165 yards and a 65-yard TD on a screen pass, is a junior. Jheremie Cacpal, who had eight receptions for 98 yards and a TD, is a freshman.
“We’ll improve off of this game. We’ve still got a lot of room to improve,” Foumai said.
With a few more plays, Aiea might have upended Moanalua in the season opener, a 28-25 loss. Moanalua later lost to Waipahu, 21-14, but Na Menehune have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Aiea. That makes the Aiea-Waipahu game a must-win for Na Alii.
All of Aiea’s games are on the road as renovations at the athletic complex continue. Foumai and Lopez are confident their team will be in the OIA D-I title game.
“We’ll be there,” Foumai said.
At John Velasco Stadium
Castle (1-3, 1-2) 7 0 14 0 — 21
Aiea (2-1, 2-1) 10 3 30 0 — 43
Aiea—Geronimo Ulgaran 65 pass from Eziekiel Olie (Bryson Boyea Quiton kick)
Cas—Kala Estacado-Matthews 38 interception return (Laurin Buckenburgh kick)
Aiea—Boyea Quiton FG 30
Aiea—Boyea Quiton FG 35
Aiea—Safety, punter Maddux Vilardi falls on bad snap in end zone
Aiea—Jayden Chanel 25 pass from Olie (Boyea Quiton kick)
Cas—Coby Tanioka 84 kick return (Buckenburgh kick)
Aiea—Olie 1 run (Boyea Quiton kick)
Aiea—Jheremie Cacpal 40 pass from Olie (Chaysen Lopez pass from Ulgaran)
Cas—Tanioka 63 pass from Daunte Ching (Buckenburgh kick)
Aiea—Olie 1 run (Boyea Quiton kick)
RUSHING—Castle: Staten Martin 1-(-3), Kala Estacado-Matthews 1-14, Ching 3-1, Jayden Flores 1-(-1), Maddux Vilardi 2-(-27), Tanioka 1-3. Aiea: Kane Lorenzana 5-20, Kaimana Lale-Saole 14-99, Jheremie Cacpal 1-0, Ulgaran 1-11, Olie 6-5.
PASSING—Castle: Daunte Ching 14-33-1-172, VIlardi 1-1-0-1. Aiea: Eziekiel Olie 22-40-4-342.
RECEIVING—Castle: Kala Estacado-Matthews 6-41, Xavier Kekahuna 2-7, Kanoa Hillen-Jenny 1-5, Tanioka 6-120. Aiea: Geronimo Ulgaran 7-165, Jheremie Cacpal 8-98, Kaimana Lale-Saole 1-16, Jayden Chanel 1-25, Trey’vn Kim Choy-Keb-Ah Lo 4-23, Kane Lorenzana 1-15.