Tafai’s play sparks Sabers in comeback win

Campbell running back Tyrese Tafai was chased in the backfield by Leilehua defensive back Randen Siavii (11) during the first half on Saturday. Steven Erler/Special to Star-Advertiser

For all of the offensive-juggernaut highlights provided by Campbell and Leilehua over the years, Friday night’s OIA 10-6 quarterfinal win by Campbell came down to grit and defense.

“We felt it would come down to a one-score game. We felt we needed to be up 4 (points) because they’ve got a kicker,” Campbell coach Darren Johnson said, referring to talented Leilehua placekicker Akoni Tom-Makue, who made two first-half field goals.

For Tyrese Tafai, Campbell’s standout sophomore linebacker/running back, it was the play of a lifetime. Leilehua had a 6-3 lead, second and 9 at its 36-yard line. With senior quarterback Kona Andres steering the ship, the Mules seemed to have destiny in their control. The call was a toss sweep to Isaiah Pillete, but he never had a chance. At the moment he grasped the football, Tafai came swooping in for a textbook tackle, getting low, square and upending Pillete, who did a complete flip. The pigskin went sailing airborne.

“I didn’t even know the ball came out. Our team just runs to the ball, just relentless,” Tafai said. “I just saw the toss coming. The film we watched, our coach prepared us well to see and recognize plays. I triggered on the play and blew it up. I’m just happy our team came out with the ‘W’ today.”

Campbell James Kesean broke a tackle during the first half of a defensive battle.

The ball landed in the hands of Stone Africa, who was in the middle of a chaotic, frenzied scrum of Mules and Sabers. Africa crossed the goal line, but the play was called back for assisting the runner. Campbell took over with the ball on the 12-yard line, and Leilehua found itself without its field general. Andres suffered a serious leg injury on the play and was down for several minutes while being attended to. He was eventually carted off the field. Leilehua was never quite the same after that.

Three plays later, Tafai scored on a 1-yard run to give the visiting Sabers the lead for good. The PAT kick by Ariel Villanueva was true, and it was huge, increasing the lead to 10-6. Johnson didn’t want to mess with any more field goals in such a low-scoring game in a constant drizzle.

“The weather’s always a factor. It’s Wahiawa. We knew it would be tough, down to the wire with two evenly-matched teams that played good football. Their coaches are superb, they’ve been doing this a long time,” Johnson said. “It could’ve gone either way. I’m just glad it went our way.”

With Andres out and Campbell’s defense playing perhaps its best game of the year, the Sabers kept the pass rush coming. Leilehua responded with runs of 14 and 16 yards by James McGary midway through the fourth quarter, but there wasn’t much else left. The final three possessions: punt, punt, turnover on downs.

It was a stunning finish to an amazing season by Coach Mark Kurisu, his staff and the Mules, who finished second in the OIA Red division and earned a first-round bye in the Division I playoffs. For Campbell, which lost running backs Jacob Covington (shoulder) and Viliami Vaimoui in the first half, it was a matter of mind over matter. Tafai and his teammates didn’t mind what it would take to win on the road, down 6-0 at the half.

“Tyrese did what he always does: Everything. What we asked of the team and defense is give us your best 24 minutes and we can walk off the field with our heads up. Hats off to Leilehua. We played a great team.”

For now, the Sabers’ staff will relish a tough victory.

“It was a defensive battle. Hats off to (defensive coordinator) Mika (Liilii) and his staff. They did their job, giving up two field goals,” Johnson said of his assistants.

“It’s like we’re preparing for the same kind of team as us, players who play with reckless abandon. We’re going to give it our best shot. We’re in the top four (of the OIA). We’re not going to go and lay down. We know Kahuku brings a superb team. We’re going to bring our best,” he said.


  1. HI HS FAN October 15, 2017 8:20 am

    Congratulations to DJ & his staff. Great win. Now get ready for another epic battle with Kahuku. It’ll come down to which defense can control the trenches and force turnovers. On the offensive side, it’ll come down to who can consistently move the ball and score. Special teams need to come up big. The team with the least penalties, turnovers, and mental errors will prevail. Get ready folks for Campbell-Kahuku rematch.

  2. Coach C October 15, 2017 9:55 am

    HI Hs Fan. Another epic battle? Not taking anything away from Campbell but the first game @Campbell was 45-6. Campbell be best to weather the Kahuku storm, save the players from more injuries and look foward to third place match against Waianae. With the red raiders first game at Aloha stadium, team speed will notch up. IMHO Kapolei would have been the best 3rd place team but Campbell does have a chance at a State berth. Now the ewa beach fans are believing that getting Johnson was the best thing AD Delo Santos did.

  3. HI HS FAN October 15, 2017 11:04 am

    Coach C. My reason for predicting an epic battle is because it is always a challenge to beat a team the second time around. Yes, the Red Raiders demolished the Sabers in their first meeting. They also devastated Kapolei this past game. However, there is always the danger of not being focused, over confident, and complacent. It’ll be up to the Kahuku coaches to emphasize how critical this game will be.
    Which ever team makes the necessary adjustments and prepares and executes their game plan will be successful. Kahuku has proven that their stonewall defense can wreak havoc. Offensively, they have shown a much more balanced attack.
    In the last two playoff games Campbell was tested by a gritty Castle team and in a dog fight with Leilehua. But they proved they could still come out ahead. It’ll be interesting how they will plan to attack Kahuku offensively and how they’ll try to stifle Kahuku’s offense. Another reason I say it’ll be epic is that the winner automatically qualifies for the Open Division of the State tournament and play for the OIA Championship. The loser needs to have a play-in game for the right to be the third team from the OIA to go into states.

  4. Rrforlifebaby October 15, 2017 12:26 pm

    Wishing coach DJ and the Campbell kids good luck. However, imho, it might be a little closer game, but the Sabers don’t have enough horses to beat Big Red. I love watching that Adkins kid, it’s too bad they don’t have more kids of his talent. The Bid Red oline did a fantastic job against a very talented front 7 from Kapolei; Campbell’s front isn’t going to hold.

    I think the more competitive game on the 20th Will be Mililani vs Waianae.

    Good luck to all the teams!

  5. Bumbuchas October 15, 2017 6:18 pm

    Puleeze! Get that Campbell AD off the sidelines during the game! Harold Tanaka is another one! They have no business within the 25 to 25 yard line zone. They not one coach, only one AD who don’t know much about Football. Let the Coaches coach, the players play! Stop getting in the way!

  6. Goodtintin October 15, 2017 8:18 pm

    AD Delos Santos from Campbell was in fact a varsity head coach for Nanakuli and was in fact a state champion in ’83. Yeah, he knows what’s going on on the sidelines. His knowledge and experience can be beneficial if needed.

  7. bumbuchas October 16, 2017 9:35 am

    yes, I remember him coaching Nanakuli and at Waipahu some centuries ago. The game has changed drastically since some 34 years ago. you only need to talk stories w/him to understand that. I don’t think they can offer anything that DJ, Mika Liiilii don’t already know besides school procedures.

  8. bumbuchas October 16, 2017 9:37 am

    BTW, best of luck to the Sabers vs Kahuku, may the best team win.

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