Mike Tresler. Ulima Afoa. Bob Wagner.
The ties between the three coaches — two matched up in the Division II state final, one long retired — are part of an intriguing final week of the Hawaii high school football season. The longest ever, and one that players, coaches and fans are grateful for.
That includes the Kapaa Warriors have been here before. Kamehameha-Maui’s path was often walled off by MIL dynasty Lahainaluna. The teams battle at Farrington’s Skippa Diaz Stadium tonight. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. for the final chapter of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships.
Kapaa has been denied in the finals and semifinals so many times. This time, the Kauai Interscholastic Federation champions plan on knocking the door down. In Tresler’s first full season as Warriors head coach, defense and special teams have been elite. In a 51-0 semifinal win over Hawaii Prep last week, Kapaa threw the ball only six times.
The Warriors arrived from Lihue Airport on Thursday morning for the ultimate business trip: the Division II title game. Kapaa spent the week practicing at night — a necessity for a team that practices and plays KIF games in the afternoons.
“We’re getting used to playing under the lights,” Tresler said. “The boys are excited because it’s at night. It’s cooler. We’d rather play in the hot sun during the day.”
Kapaa’s semifinal game last week had a 3 p.m. kickoff, so the team arrived the night before game day.
“We’re playing at night, so the kids can sleep in their own beds. We’re going straight to the game (from the airport),” Tresler said.
Size in the trenches has been a key factor. Will it be the same when Kapaa takes on MIL champion Kamehameha-Maui on Thursday night?
Kapaa starts 6-foot-1, 220-pound Santana Hernandez-Martinez at left tackle. Tresler considers the senior unmatched from a technical standpoint. From there, the trench men get bigger. Left guard Koa Kanakaole (6-4, 310, Fr.), center Noah Navalta (5-11, 260, Fr.), right guard Lono Aki (6-5, 420, Jr.) and right tackle Kawika Rogers (6-6, 300, Sr.) round out the line.
Aki, Tresler noted, has dropped some pounds and is a svelte 400 now.
Regardless, there will be a first-time state champion on Wednesday night.
Weather is going to be crucial again. Last week’s Open Division and D-I title games were spared the combination of rain and wind that prevailed two weeks ago. Today’s forecast, however, has a 30-40 percent chance of rain — very much on the higher side for a forecast.
Afoa has an offense at KS-Maui that will run the ball given the opportunity. Though the MIL D-II champions love to throw the ball in a hybrid run-and-shoot, air-raid system, KS-Maui actually ran the ball 32 times and passed 29 times in a 48-24 win over previously unbeaten Kaiser last week.
Kapaa is a different kind of beast. Kaiser was somewhat similar to KS-Maui in terms of size and speed. Kapaa has athleticism, but their big boys in the trenches have been unchallenged so far in 2021.
“Size-wise, they look like Maui and Baldwin,” Afoa said. “But we’ve just accepted the fact that it isn’t always about size.”
True enough. KS-Maui beat Baldwin, one of the MIL’s three D-I football programs.
KS-Maui has never played for a football state title before, through the MIL has precedent. King Kekaulike won the 2006 D-II state crown under then-coach J.W. Kenton, defeating Kauai 33-20 in the title game. In time, Lahainaluna build its dynasty and broke through at the state level in 2016 under co-head coaches Bobby Watson and Garret Tihada.
After four titles in a row, the Lunas moved up to D-I, opening the door for third-seeded KS-Maui. With a small enrollment of roughly 500-600 students annually, KS-Maui is carving its niche. Quarterback Makana Kamaka-Brayce is only a sophomore. Eight of the offense’s starters are underclassmen. KS-Maui starts only four seniors on defense.
One of the top freshmen at any level is Kaonohi Casco, a 6-foot, 175-pound defensive back who started at cornerback against Kaiser.
“We played Casco (at cornerback) because he has great range and for a ninth grader, he’s pretty advanced in playing ability,” Afoa said.
Casco is under the weather this week, however, and is questionable for the title game.
Like Kapaa, KS-Maui has speed lining up on defense. Will it be able to contain Kapaa’s ground-and-pound machine?
Afoa is a former college assistant coach who loves coaching defense. His team has a scheme for every possible situation. He was at KS-Hawaii as the schools first football head coach while Wagner was the athletic director. Now, Afoa is the Athletic Academic Counselor at KS-Maui.
“I came in October of 2015 as a counselor working with potential college student-athletes. Paying for a scouting service might be 2,000, $3,000 when they could do it on their own. Nothing against them, this is Capitalism 101, but at the same time, asking parents to dish out that money when they just have to learn how to do it,” Afoa said.
When Afoa coached at schools like San Diego State, social media wasn’t a thing yet. Connecting college coaches and high school prospects was much different.
“Recruiting has changed tremendously and a lot of that has to do with technology, how you keep in touch with kids. You can do a Zoom call during a dead week, where there were times you couldn’t even talk the student-athletes,” he said.
He started from scratch on the Valley Isle.
“I didn’t know anybody on this island. I slowly got to know people,” Afoa said.
Offensive coordinator Lance De Silva was a friend of a friend.
“Lance played semi-pro ball with one of my offensive line coaches (Warren Dela Cruz). He played for the Hilo Bulls,” Afoa said. “You trust people and their recommendation.”
De Silva’s athletic career was mainly in basketball, but he learned the ropes and moved with the times as pass-first offenses took off over the past two decades.
“Mike Leach was a basketball guy. So was Paul Johnson,” Afoa said.
De Silva was a roommate of quarterback Brian Ah Yat while they were at Montana. Ah Yat set multiple passing records there.
Tresler is a classic name from Hawaii Rainbow Warriors lore. His fingerprints are all over Kapaa’s program. The special team units have blocked kicks and returned TDs.
Special teams are one-third of the game. I was fortunate to have really good coaching,” said Tresler, who was a defensive back with Hawaii while Wagner was head coach.
Wagner retired from coaching at the college level and was the athletic director at KS-Hawaii for years. He and his wife reside in pristine, sometimes nippy Waikii on Hawaii Island.
“Especially last week, it got chilly. That cold front,” Wagner said. “Ulima worked for me at KS-Hawaii and he was on my last staff. I remember when Mike showed up as a walk-on (at UH). I didn’t know much about him. He wasn’t very big. Hard worker, feisty.”
Wagner travels often enough. He was on the Garden Island recently.
“I was on Kauai a couple times in the past three, four weeks. I didn’t see Mike. I was talking to somebody played for him, and he basically said Mike was crazy for football,” Wagner said. “Their personalities are very different. Ulima is even keeled, low key, the opposite of Mike, who’s fiery.”
During Wagner’s years at Hawaii, the spread option was king. Kapaa’s preference for ground-and-pound football is no surprise to Wagner.
“Mike must be running inside zone. We had bigger guards than tackles (at UH),” he said. “If you don’t need to throw it…”
420 LBS? Is that a miss print?
It’s 420. Actually 400 now. Coach said he lost some.
Paul Honda, I found paragraphs 4-8 confusing. Could you please straighten it out for my understanding? Did Kapaa arrive at Honolulu last week Thursday December 23 for tonight’s(December 30) game with Kamehameha? If so, why did Tresler say the kids can sleep in their own beds, we’re going straight to the game (from the airport)?
They arrived on the morning of game day this week. Last week, they arrived the night before game day since it was an early (3 p.m.) kickoff.