Physical Kahuku team faces ultimate test
Kahuku’s defense swarmed Waianae running back Rico Rosario earlier this year. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser.
Close your eyes for a few seconds.
Take yourself back to the 1970s. Maybe even the ’60s. Your TV? You’re lucky to have basic cable. USA Network is still a few years away from its NBA contract. Michael Jordan has yet to drop 63 points on the Boston Celtics during the playoffs.
No, it’s the ’70s. High school football in Hawaii is still about the Prep Bowl. Larry Ginoza and the wing-T at Waianae. Cal Chai and the sky-blue accented uniforms of Kamehameha. Saint Louis is about to go on a magical ride with new coach Cal Lee at the end of the decade.
You reach for the TV remote… no, wait. There’s no such thing. You stand up and walk to your TV, adjust the antenna, manually click your way to a different station. There’s no high school football. There’s no high school anything. Maybe some games on the radio.
Football in this era is perfect for radio. There’s not a whole lot to describe from a schematic point of view. The 3-4 defense was exotic. Just about everyone played a 4-3, sometimes a 5-2, and when necessary, a 5-3. A nickel could get you an ice cake or chik-o-stick at the mom-and-pop corner store. There were rarely nickels on the gridiron.
Football was about the trenches. Who would dominate at the point of contact? It wasn’t about spreading the field and creating more space. It was about you, me and who would still be standing by the final 3 minutes. Who would deal the most punishment. Who could take the most and come back stronger.
Today’s Kahuku Red Raiders are not just a throwback team. The essence of who they are, from head coach Vavae Tata, to his assistants, to the mentality of all 11 players on the field glued together to make legal destruction of an opponent happen on every single snap is pure hand-to-hand combat on a football field.
When the Red Raiders take the field against Bishop Gorman on Saturday, it will be more than a game between Hawaii’s best team and the entire nation’s No. 1 program. It will be about the inheritance of an entire community from Kahuku to Laie to Hauula to Kaaawa, showing the country what fans in the islands have seen for decades.
It will be about smashmouth football.
It has worked for Tata, who coached at Stanford and Vanderbilt, who could run any system he wanted at Carlton Weimer Field every day and night. But rather than venture deeply to adopt the latest trends, he merely files them away. The four-wide? Only when necessary. The read option? Occasionally.
He came back to Kahuku last year, saw his starting quarterback go down with an injury early, and decided that anything else but a jumbo formation featuring nine to 10 blockers at 200-plus pounds each would be less advantageous. Pummeling. Successful. A 13-0 season revealed the truth about Kahuku and the immense pride of the community, but it also cemented the notion that the team in red doesn’t need to recruit nationwide, as Bishop Gorman does, and it doesn’t need the latest evolutionary schemes to out-think opponents.
It needs girth, power and aggression to get those 3.4 or more yards on every snap. Can this be done against a team like Bishop Gorman? To be fair, the Gaels are the point where it doesn’t recruit in the traditional sense. Players come to them. Haskell Garrett is one of them.
As a middle-schooler at Saint Louis, back when Matt Wright was the varsity head coach, Garrett was a man-child. On the basketball court, unstoppable. Long, strong and quick. By ninth grade, he was playing JV football for the Crusaders, lining up on defense to tear up offenses, but on offense, he was sometimes in the slot, catching passes and juking much smaller defenders on his way to the end zone.
Soon enough, he was gone. Garrett, who is committed to Ohio State, never took a snap for the Saint Louis varsity, just as Lee and his staff returned to revive the legacy of Crusaders football. LinebackerPalaie Gaoteote, a former Mililani player, and former ‘Iolani offensive lineman Jacob Isaia, also moved from Oahu to play for the Gaels.
Bishop Gorman has a roster full of Garretts. A Catholic school in Las Vegas, former coach Tony Sanchez now leads the program at UNLV. His younger brother, Kenny, is in his second year as head coach. For the past few years, some Hawaii-raised players have trickled into the program. The team has grown to be such a powerhouse loaded with in- and out-of-state talent that many schools in Nevada expressed issues with competing against what is essentially an all-star team. Snoop Dog’s son transferred there from Long Beach Poly — an elite program in its own right — a few years back.
After a recent 44-14 road win over then No. 5-ranked Cedar Hill (Texas), the president of the Texas High School Coaches Association, David Wetzel, criticized Bishop Gorman in a letter. Wetzel is also head coach at Reagan High School in San Antonio.
“You’ll notice those complaints are not coming from (Cedar Hill) coach (Joey) McGuire.
I’m glad we got to play that game,” Gaels coach Kenny Sanchez told USA Today. “I think he should spend more time teaching his kids to overcome adversity than make excuses for adversity.”
The Gaels committed 11 first-half penalties last weekend to get past No. 3 St. John Bosco (Calif.) in Long Beach. Tate Martell, a commit to Ohio State, passed for 183 yards and three TDs, and ran for 113 yards and another six points. They took a 21-20 lead on a scoring run by Martell in the third quarter.
Martell, according to some analysts, is the best quarterback in the nation. Kahuku has not faced a QB like him since last year’s HHSAA state championship game, when Saint Louis’ Tua Tagovailoa — rated by other recruiting experts as better than Martell — was on the other side. Tagovailoa passed for 191 yards and finished with minus-1 yard rushing as Kahuku won 39-14.
Bishop Gorman, though, is loaded with prospects up and down its roster, players heading to elite conferences. Kahuku is no slouch, talent-wise. Between TE/DE Aliki Vimahi, CB Kekaula Kaniho, OLSekope Lutu Latu, DE Samson Reed, OL Izaya Vimahi, LB Miki Ah You, OL Enokk Vimahi, LB Kesi Ah-Hoy and QB Sol-Jay Maiava, the Red Raiders have at least 32 scholarship offers and counting.
Ever since the matchup was announced in January, there’s been a buzz in the islands. Kahuku’s small allotment of tickets was sold out almost instantly. Even with a modestly more diversified offense, Kahuku has mostly shunned the forward pass again this season. Averaging 46.4 points per game allowing just 22 points while going 5-0, Tata’s version of prep football is practically immaculate. He is 18-0 as head coach.
“We’re excited,” Ah-Hoy told Christian Shimabuku of Hawaii Prep World after an 83-0 win over Radford. “We’re not treating this game any different. It’s just a regular game.”
There it is. A throwback team willing to sledgehammer the ball between the tackles from start to finish against the nation’s premier program, one with a seemingly open wallet to reel in the finest talent from near and far. If the jumbo package stalls, it will be imperative for Maiava, who has a scholarship offer from Michigan, to do enough through the air to keep the Gaels honest.
Until the state-title game, no team scored more than seven points against Kahuku. The Red Raiders permitted a mere 4.1 points per contest with five shutouts. This season, Kahuku has shut out three opponents already. Tata’s imprint — a minimum of penalties, well executed schemes on defense and special teams, and hardly ever a turnover offensively — all harken back to a time when discipline prevailed.
Even in the glitz and glitter of Las Vegas, discipline might be the difference on Saturday night.