Awards: HS Coach of the Year
Our High School Coach of the Year has done everything in his power to expose his players to the world of rugby. Nusi Tukuafu started the Kahuku (Oahu, Hawaii) girls team two years ago and has been crossing the Pacific Ocean for competition ever since. This spring was especially ambitious, as the team committed to two mainland tournaments, and now the desired outcome has evolved: The players are now individually motivated to explore the opportunity in rugby and continue promoting Kahuku's brand of play.
Kahuku didn’t have a problem with building interest. The single school serves the entire North Shore, and athletes gravitated to the game. Player interest deepened after Kahuku traveled to the 2015 Pacific Northwest all-star tournament, and Tukuafu stoked that momentum by planning more cross-Pacific trips. In March 2016, the Oahu team competed in the Las Vegas Invitational, taking on California's Fallbrook, South Bay and Bishop O’Dowd. Two-and-a-half months later, it was time to enter the history books, and the team flew to St. Charles, Mo., for the first single-school national championship.
Like all teams, Kahuku had its barriers. Aside from the obvious financial requirements, nationals conflicted with high school graduation. But the team’s debut at nationals was important to the entire team.
“It was a bit hard for the seniors to regain focus … since they literally walked off the podium with their diplomas into a vehicle for an hour ride to the airport, flew seven hours, and connected through Phoenix for three hours before arriving in St. Louis,” Tukuafu explained. “The biggest factor was the five-hour time difference and the girls having to adjust their bodies in such little time.”
Kahuku lost its opening match 17-15 to eventual single-school champion St. Joseph Academy.
“They took the loss to St. Joseph Academy pretty hard, as it was a very good match, but there were some major factors that made it difficult to win,” the coach confessed. “We were trading the lead back and forth, but I could tell my players were still jet-lagged.
“Another major factor was the officiating,” Tukuafu added. “There is a big difference between how officiating is on the west coast compared to the [Midwest].”
Players learned about adjusting to the refereeing, among other lessons, but also began to understand their depth of character. Senior prop Jenna Tufaga, who scored two tries in the St. Joe quarterfinal, was a constant source of inspiration and established a rhythm around which the team rallied. Sophomore outside center Nohea Uluave was solid off the tee, and her precision clinched Kahuku’s consolation semifinal win. Tukuafu also called out all of the underclassmen who stepped up in this high-pressure environment. After graduating seven seniors and with three juniors behind them, the 9th and 10th graders will become the core of the team.
The Hawaiian side rallied in the consolation semifinals, tying Indiana state champion Warsaw 12-12 after regulation and then winning the tiebreaker on kicks. That set up a fifth-place match against Pennsylvania state champion State College, a game that Kahuku won 28-10 on day two.
“Overall the competition was great,” Tukuafu considered the state champions and runners-up in attendance. “The quality of the teams and the diverse strategy from each coaching staff were really phenomenal.
“As far as my players were concerned, they now know that they can compete at that level of play, even though they learned the game within two years or are first-years,” the coach added.
That young core of players has already competed in three mainland tournaments and finished fifth at single-school nationals. Scouts are talking to older teammates while players like Tui Roberts and Aisina Farley sign with rugby schools like Lindenwood University. The drive to experience more and promote Kahuku is emanating from within the ranks.
“As soon as we sat down for team dinner on Sunday night after the tournament, I was already hearing the team admin talking about fundraising for next year's championship,” Tukuafu said. “So are my girls eager to return? Definitely, and so are their parents and team support.”
And that's the mark of a good coach.