Defense wins trophies
Kahuku's Alekisanita Vimahi (91) and Keala Santiago (3)
It started out like one of those Saint Louis Prep Bowl wins from the Lee Dynasty. But that was misleading.
Suffocating defense and a huge special teams play gave the Crusaders a touchdown lead before their spectacular quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had even stepped onto the field.
But the first 52 seconds and another Kahuku three-and-out were just a mirage, in no way indicative of things to come. We had yet to see the star attraction of this state championship game. And here’s a hint: It wasn’t Tagovailoa.
This night and this season belonged to the Kahuku defense, and that’s why Vavae Tata’s team dominated his alma mater, 39-14. In Tata’s first year as a varsity high school football coach, he guided Kahuku to a 13-0 record, with the crowning achievement a decisive win against the man who coached him at Saint Louis to a Prep Bowl
victory over Kahuku 21 years ago, Cal Lee.
Kahuku’s defense was a swarming mass of red menace. You kept looking for a flag, because no 11-man defense can make plays like that so consistently, get to the quarterback or the ball so quickly, so often.
Tagovailoa — the most gifted offensive player in the state — was under pressure all night. When the Raiders weren’t sacking him they forced him into hurried throws, three landing in the hands of Kahuku defensive backs.
Stokes Botelho got two. The one early in the fourth quarter came three plays after an apparent touchdown pass for Saint Louis that would’ve made it a one-score game was called back for holding. A couple of minutes later, Kesi Ah-Hoy was in the end zone celebrating his third touchdown, the score was 36-14 with 3:42 left and it was over.
Louis "Keala" Santiago was all over the place, jumping on a fumble and picking off another bad pass caused by Kahuku’s ferocious pass rush. It seems like there’s more than one of him on the field, which in a way is fitting since his father and grandfather of the same name were also Kahuku stars.
Tata, who a year ago was still an assistant at Vanderbilt, has quickly found a rarefied place in Hawaii high school football history two decades after graduating from Saint Louis. He’s just the third man to win a Prep Bowl as a player and a state championship game as a coach, joining Rich Miano and Darnell Arceneaux.
And this Kahuku defense? Is it the state’s best ever as some have said?
Yielding just one offensive touchdown and 139 yards in a championship game against a juggernaut that averaged 39.7 points per game concludes a strong case. Going into last night it already featured six shutouts in the 12 previous wins.
The 2005 and 1986 Kahuku teams might argue it’s not even the best in school history, having posted six and eight shutouts.
A couple of Saint Louis squads could make a case. Maybe Kamehameha or Leilehua in the 1970s. But back then, offenses were mostly one-dimensional.
My pick that might compare best is Waianae, 1979. The Seariders, led by Fred Toilolo, Joe Masaniai and Max Maneafaiga, crafted eight shutouts while going 11-0. But in the OIA championship game they lost 20-13, which is more significant when you consider the opponent was Kaiser — coached by Ron Lee, Cal’s brother and the Crusaders’ offensive coordinator last night.