Saturday’s HHSAA Division II championship game saw Lahainaluna win its third straight state title in a row with a 34-32 win over Kapaa.
The Lunas rallied from a 26-7 halftime deficit and did so as a team, chipping away at the Warriors one drive at a time. But under the bright afternoon shine of Aloha Stadium, one player stood out among the rest.
At a strapping 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, Kapaa right guard Eli Unutoa was physically head and shoulders above everyone else on the field. Unutoa refused to get by on size alone, opening up lanes on the right side for Ryno Banasihan to run for 153 yards on 15 carries in the first half alone.
“We’re gonna start fast, we’re gonna be physical and establish the game in the trenches,” Unutoa said. “We did a successful job of that.”
Unutoa was seen taking on multiple defensive players at once during some plays. He also displayed a nasty streak at times too, keeping some defensive lineman down longer than they would’ve liked.
The senior, who is committed to BYU, was reflective after the postgame handshake line after realizing his prep career is over.
“It’s sad that we lost but I’m just feeling really grateful right now. It was a good experience this year,” he said. “We weren’t supposed to be here but we worked hard, (Lahainaluna) earned it. Just proud of this team and thankful for everything.”
Kapaa head coach Philip Rapozo admitted he’ll miss Unutoa’s presence next year but was quick to credit the rest of the offensive line. Both sides didn’t squander a single sack on Saturday.
“Eli, he’s a tough guy, man. He’s been working hard all year just like the rest of the O-line. They just work so well together,” Rapozo said. “Proud of those guys, you know? Because we started shaky with injuries and we ended with some. But hey, that’s the game. We’re gonna come back, rebuild and just try to come back here next year.”
Unutoa, who is also a 2019 Polynesian Bowl selection, chose the Cougars over offers from California, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Iowa State and San Diego State.
He’ll be following in the footsteps of his father, Morris, who also attended BYU before a seven-year career in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills from 1996 to 2002. The older Unutoa was also on the Kapaa staff this year.
When Eli Unutoa heads to Provo, he can also expect to square off against older brother Mo, who is a redshirt freshman at rival Utah and 2017 graduate of Kapaa. Eli says he’s eager to get going. He just wishes he could have left high school with a win.
“I’m excited, but it’s just the beginning. I’m just looking forward to developing and growing,” Eli Unutoa said. “Just a bunch of hard work, long hours, long days. It was worth it for sure.”