Yoda is not real, but Ron Lee certainly is.
The guru of four-wide, “run and shoot” football at the high school level in Hawaii is in his sixth decade of coaching, and his offense remains a cornerstone at Quarterback High, a.k.a. Saint Louis School.
Then there is young Luke, or Sterling Carvalho, a longtime assistant-turned-head coach at Kahuku. Under his watch, Team Smashmouth has transformed into Team Unstoppable. Facing OIA Open Division foes, the pride of the North Shore has used its wide-open offense and air-tight defense to win by these scores: 41-7, 75-6, 55-0, 50-7, 55-20, 49-23, 33-7.
Then came a nail-biter, 21-14 win over Mililani for the OIA crown, and a rather tame 21-0 victory over Campbell in last weekend’s semifinal round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships.
The clear, invisible and potent x-factor in tonight’s Open Division title tilt is wind. It was factor in Wednesday night’s D-II semifinals, and it was a key in last weekend’s Open and D-I battles.
The winning recipe in inclement, some would say, rotten weather is not easily duplicated. Saint Louis needed a clutch field goal by Lason Napuunoa to get past Mililani, 27-25. Kahuku could use Mililani’s game plan, run the ball and the clock while keeping Saint Louis quarterback AJ Bianco and his playmakers on the sideline at Skippa Diaz Stadium.
That would suit Kahuku’s elite defensive unit well. From Leonard Ah You to Liona Lefau, the back seven (or eight) is a brigade of physical, fast and interchangeable parts that wreaks havoc to the designs of many offensive coordinators.
“We consider Lefau more of a DB, not so much a corner, but a guy who will play our slots and run with them,” Lee said. “I expect him to be a big factor whether they play zone or man.”
Yet, Kahuku has not entered these waters yet.
After nine wins without a loss, Kahuku will finally play an ILH team. Saint Louis (6-3) has weathered many storms in this longest of seasons, which began with a loss at Bishop Gorman (Nev.) on Aug. 20.
Bianco’s arm strength, poise and patience were all tested as a first-year starter. When the ground game struggled, Bianco turned the offense into a juggernaut by unleashing his running ability. But Lee still wants his field general to be selective.
“I felt AJ was running the ball too much (against Mililani). We didn’t fire on all cylinders, especially in the passing game. The conditions weren’t great, but he was a little rusty not playing for so long,” Lee said. “We’ve got to get better. This is another tough one.”
The unknown is this: how committed is Kahuku to its passing game? In a year-plus of talented athletes transferring away because of the pandemic and cancellations — or the threat of cancellations — in Hawaii, Kahuku may have retained outstanding players simply by modernizing its blueprint. The four- and five-wide sets were always in the playbook while Carvalho was an assistant coach. Just not utilized fully because, well, if it ain’t broken…
“I’ve been there for a long time and we have great athletes. Offensively, we were only using our running backs as a source of yardage or scoring,” Carvalho said. “Yes, I know we’ve had a lot of players who thought that, I’m a quarterback or wide receiver, so I might as well go someplace else. We need to utilize all our athletes as much as possible.”
Lee doesn’t mind the challenge. In fact, he seems to enjoy the concept, even for a four-time defending champ, of being an underdog.
“I think (Kahuku) is going to do what they’ve been doing, mix it up and whatever works, they’re going to stick with it,” he said. “They just have really good athletes. They have a good nose for the ball. They line them up where they’re supposed to be and they’re good at that. They’re always in the right place. We’re going to have to play smart. They match up with us well. We’re going to have to play fast, get the ball out there.”
Kahuku has not won a state championship since 2016, but bears more resemblance to Saint Louis offensively than ever. Imitation may be sincerely flattering, but Kahuku’s players may have taken this one step beyond.
The offseason of Pylon workouts, training reps with mentors like Kawe Johnson, and even lonely, isolated hours alone in the park with a ladder and some cones are paying off. The championship titles at Pylon tournaments reinforce what the aerial movement is about.
“It wasn’t overnight. It’s hard to change a culture of great football, smashmouth football, running the ball,” Carvalho noted. “We cant still do that, but what makes us more effective is being balanced.”
When necessary, or even when not, Carvalho has shifted gears from the hyperspeed run and shoot attack to the old-school sledgehammer running game.
Last week’s 21-0 win over Campbell in the semifinals was basic defense at its finest. Kahuku didn’t need to air the ball out more than usual, and wound up with 35 rushing attempts and only 25 passes. For the season, Kahuku has 196 rushes and 205 pass attempts.
”We’re going to stay with what brought us here, take advantage of whatever the defense gives us. I know the weather is going to be a big part, the rain, but the wind will be a big factor,” Carvalho said. “We can call two plays and we can audible.”
Lee hasn’t been part of a championship game in late December for some time. In a normal year, the title game is in November.
“We played at Skippa (Diaz Stadium) a couple of years ago and it was fine,” Lee said. “I didn’t realize how windy it would get, and the rain didn’t help. It was so much to think about. The fact that we hadn’t played in seven weeks was a concern.”
Kahuku skill-position talent has left in years past to play in more diversified, or pass-first offenses. The effects of weather should trump all other needs or wants, but up-and-coming athletes will still wonder this about Kahuku’s tradition and evolution:
Is this the game that shows young kids that Saint Louis is still the best place to be as a receiver? Will Kahuku revert back to the mean and smashmouth all game because of weather and risk control?
Of course, there is no wrong answer. Any receiver would love to be in either offense now. One is evolving. The other has been in place for decades, long enough that the expectation is for all pass catchers to read defensive alignment and adjust on the fly.
“There is no perfect answer,” Carvalho said. “We have to be able to adjust. We have to be smart, control the clock, control the ball. We just want to move the ball, so it’s going to be a chess match all night.”
In the battle for talent across the board, how a team wins a state title can mean almost as much as winning itself. This is an era where a potential All-American linebacker like Lefau runs deep routes as a receiver during his high school years. That’s a job-and-a-half that most high school playmakers do relish.
Fun equals advantage equals more success.
“I’m excited just because I know this is what the players want from day one in the offseason. Kahuku football is always championship or bust,” Carvalho said. “They players work in the offseason for this. They had to player-initiated practices and workouts. They put in the work themselves to get to this point. I’m so proud of them.”