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.”
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.