The Showdown: MBC’s D-line steps up in 14-13 thriller over Trench Dawgz

At Aloha Stadium, shortly after Mill Vill’s preseason JPS win over Waipahu, two powerhouse club teams butted heads.

The Trench Dawgz and MBC Athletics met up in an epic battle that came down to a two-point conversion attempt by the Dawgz in the final three minutes. MBC stopped the Trench Dawgz’ I-formation run play for a 14-13 win.

The defensive battle — three sacks by MBC’s Raphael Leapaga — had playoff intensity from start to finish. A relatively low number of penalties. Barely an unsportsmanlike call. A Division I prospect in Jayden Maiava at quarterback for the Dawgz. An unheralded, but ultimately clutch young playmaker, Mike Higa, at QB for MBC (one touchdown pass, one TD run).

It was good. It almost filled the void.

For players who hadn’t played an organized game since the fall of 2019, JPS’ new adventure in regular-season varsity-level competition is an oasis. MBC coach Mose Tuia crafted a game plan to hammer away on the ground while trusting his stalwart defense.

“We wanted to wear them down. I know their numbers are small, so we wanted to keep the gas on the pedal. They’re really physical,” Tuia said.

UH recruit Zhen-Keith Sotelo and Leapaga were instigators in the trenches.

“It felt good,” Leapaga said on Sunday.

After MBC returned a month ago from California, where they won one game lost another, they held tryouts to add more players. Success has been a magnet, so much so that they have ordered new jerseys with a unique touch.

“I put the logo of each kid’s high school on the jersey,” Tuia said. “The team that played (on Saturday), it’s actually a first game for us. The team that went to California was a different team. This team was more a mixture. We have kids from Waianae, Damien, Castle, Campbell, Waipahu, Farrington. Some of the kids that went to California are in track now.

The difference is vast.

“We were missing about 10 of our seniors and starters (on Saturday),” Tuia said. “They got replaced by the younger ones.”

Leapaga has opportunities at Linfield, Pacific and Southern Virginia. He can’t wait for the new game jerseys.

“I ripped my jersey, so I’m ready for a new one. I went for a tackle and a cleat got stuck in my jersey. We balled out and we won, that’s all I’m happy about,” he said.

The defensive line is elite with Sotelo and Leapaga, plus some new players who also had big plays. Containing Maiava is never easy. On paper, Maiava plays for a D-II high school program and faced a horde of Open Division and D-I talent across the line. In reality, he is a Power-5 Conference prospect. He broke away for a 57-yard gain from the Dawgz’ 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. He also hit running back Lilio Kaluna for a 75-yard scoring play. The first eye-opener was a scramble and 27-yard TD strike on the run, off one foot, with absolute, shades-of-PatrickMahomes flair.

“Ho, he’s really good. He can really get out of the pocket. By the time we were in the pocket, he goes out on the B gap, the skinniest gap, for a run. That’s what he was doing constantly. In the fourth quarter, we finally got him,” Leapaga said.

Leapaga and Sotelo were on the chase and brought Maiava down on fourth-and-10 near the sideline, close to midfield in the final minute of play.

“The center left me untouched. I was lined up in the gap. I swam over him and waited until the fullback blew through the other side ‘A’ gap. Then I caught the running back and Zion came in and made the tackle with me,” said Leapaga, who isn’t sure of the last name of his new teammate, Zion.

“He’s from Waianae.”

What happened just before the Trench Dawgz’ final possession was new for a lot of players and coaches. After MBC stuffed the Dawgz’ two-point conversion run up the middle, the Dawgz opted to do the “onside’ choice of having the ball on their own 40-yard line with a fourth down and 10 starting point — rather than allow MBC to have the ball at its 25.

That is one of the options often discussed at higher levels as an alternative to actual onside kicks, which were successful at a roughly 3-percent rate in the NFL last season. Giving Maiava the ball in that scenario was truly nerve-racking.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Leapaga said. “We were nervous. We thought he was going to throw it, but he ran it.”

Nothing about MBC’s performance should be surprising. MBC limited Winner Circle Athletics to one touchdown in the first three quarters of their battle last month before falling, 21-7. That was before California reversed field to allow football in the spring, which led to WCA’s best players returning to their respective high schools.

With the new additions, MBC has quite the wall of doom for all opposing offenses, even the uber-talented Maiava and a big, physical offensive line. They also had a game plan to fit their strengths, tilting the metrics just enough over the tipping line. Trench Dawgz saw some talented players return to Saint Louis and Punahou when private school programs started training for the exhibition schedule this spring.

“That’s one of the things we wanted, to wear them down. I know their numbers are small, so we wanted to keep the gas on the pedal. They’re really physical,” Tuia said.

MBC will lose its seniors to graduation soon, but the foundation is built on firm ground. Higa is only a junior. Quarterback Tuli Tagovailoa, who played “50 percent” of the snaps, Tuia said, is just a freshman.

Depth allowed Tuia and his staff to rotate liberally. MBC had some third-string defenders in the game when Maiava connected with Kaluna for the late TD.

“We instill a lot of discipline. We had one player who missed a lot of practice this week, so he didn’t play until the second quarter. We don’t play to the all-stars or favorites. Everybody has a fair shot,” Tuia said. “We’ve also got guys who play both ways like Sefa Tapeni.”

The sophomore is a lineman from Kapolei.

“He’s going to be the next big thing,” Tuia said. “A lot of my guys got doubled, but as a unit they did a lot of things to get to the quarterback. They prepared pretty good for this game.”

Safety Riley Makinney (Kapolei) is only a junior. Cornerback Leo Kelekolio-Taylor (Kapolei) and defensive tackle/left guard Alaifono Ale (Kapolei) are seniors. Fortunately, the JPS high school division season will give the seniors the opportunity that was available in 47 states.

“They’re going to be doing this every spring now,” Tuia said of JPS. “It’s really good that Rob (Faleafine) is going to do it. I hope this club football really turns into something big. If it turns away from high school, that’s big time. There are too many restrictions. The one thing I don’t get, some of the (school) staff don’t even support football. It’s hard to coach without the support.”

That administrative and bureaucratic structure make the difference. Some high schools work out on campus in protocol-driven setting. Some programs are completely shut down with no workouts. Tuia empathizes with many of the head coaches at the varsity level.

“Coach (Darren) Hernandez (of Kapolei), Coach Rod (York, Mililani/Mill Vill), those guys are the beacons of light for high school football. Coach Ron (Lee), Coach Cal Lee (of Saint Louis). Those are the guys I look up to. They lead by example,” Tuia said. “I love Coach Hernandez.”

MBC and the rest of the JPS Oahu high school division kick off the regular season this weekend. Trench Dawgz board their flight to Las Vegas tonight. They will play Sin City Legendz on Saturday.

MBC might be the favorite in JPS, but there is ample senior talent across the island itching to suit up and play for the first time since the fall of 2019. With three games under their belts, MBC has a head start. Cohesion.

“That’s what we have. Even with our defense. We switch guys around because we have that chemistry. We can communicate and see the play. I think that’s what Coach Mose taught us,” Leapaga said. “Our starting D-line was playing O-line during the game. When they played D-line full time in the fourth quarter, that’s when we made the stops.”


  1. ILoveHawaii April 20, 2021 7:47 am

    Great coverage.

    Happy to see football being played in the stadium again.
    And excited to see UH football games being played on Campus!!!!!

  2. kapakahi April 22, 2021 9:41 pm

    FYI…..2022 DL Zion To’oto’o (Waianae HS)

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