Kahuku, Saint Louis ready for rematch
PHOTOS BY JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM, PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BRYANT FUKUTOMI / BFUKUTOMI@STARADVERTISER.COM
Saint Louis coach Cal Lee lost to former player Vavae Tata of Kahuku in last year’s final but gets a rematch on Saturday.
The 2016 prep football season will possibly be best remembered for two unmistakable icons: Saint Louis quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Kahuku’s defense.
In no particular order of greatness, to be sure, at least until Saturday’s inaugural First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships Open Division championship game between No. 1 Kahuku (11-1) and No. 2 Saint Louis (9-1). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Aloha Stadium.
Tagovailoa’s three-year varsity career comes to an end in the matchup, a southpaw at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds equally capable of breaking open a game with his passing touch and his running ability. Tagovailoa has been relentlessly productive from Day 1, piling up numbers and wins at an amazing rate. Eventually, somewhere in the midst of all those highlight plays — he threw for 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions as a sophomore — Alabama offered him a scholarship.
Tagovailoa has one feat left to achieve: a state title. Once again, Kahuku stands in the Crusaders’ way.
Kahuku has been unblemished for two seasons under coach Vavae Tata when it comes to in-state success: 24 wins without a defeat. That includes a 39-14 victory over Saint Louis and Tagovailoa in the 2015 championship game. The Red Raiders have permitted just 43 points in 11 in-state games this fall, 3.9 per contest. The numbers are impressive, but the way Kahuku has continued to value defense in the Tata era, going back to previous championship teams under Reggie Torres, remains consistently supreme. For Tata, though, it was important for this year’s Red Raiders to establish ownership.
“I made it clear at our first meeting (that) 2015 is a different team; 2016, we have a new identity moving forward. The momentum of 2015 doesn’t carry over,” he said.
Tata and his staff haven’t stopped grinding a single bit. In fact, after a decisive semifinal win over Kapolei last week, he almost cringed at the notion that the Red Raiders have been more disciplined under his watch.
“One, two, three, four… 12. Twelve penalties today,” he said, looking at one of the index cards he kept in a pocket. “That’s way too many.”
This year’s defensive unit is much like those in the past, not dependent on a singular aspect or an individual superstar. From front to back, there are great defenders not just because of individual plays, but because there is a chemistry and intelligence among all 11 on the field that goes back to tradition, work ethic and, without question, preparation in the film room. No offense can overlook Aliki Vimahi and George Lauhingoa up front, or Miki Ah You and Sekope Latu controlling the box, and the secondary featuring Kesi Ah-Hoy, Stokes Nihipali-Botelho and Kekaula Kaniho — “DB University” — is unparalleled.
Sometime on Saturday evening, one icon will yield.
For Saint Louis, it will be the end of a special era with No. 13 in the shotgun. With Cal Lee and his staff in Year 3 of their return to campus, reaching the mountain top is gratifying — Lee is recovering from surgery to remove a kidney stone three weeks ago. Winning a state title as an underdog?
“They’re coached very well, that’s for sure. You see that every week. It’s going to be a real good challenge for us, but that’s what life is about. How you react,” Lee said. “Our guys have a commitment, to do what we’ve asked, and in the meantime we’re teaching life skills.”
Kahuku’s ground-and-pound game was all about jumbo sets a year ago. Now, freshman QB Sol-Jay Maiava shows glimmers of greatness, executing deep play-action passes out of the I-formation and perfect zone reads out of the shotgun, two-RB sets.
“He’s an athlete. They don’t throw the ball a lot, but when they do, he’s very effective and he’s got a great pair of legs,” Lee said. “I’m not getting too many hours of sleep thinking about it.”
Tata has stressed to his team the need to “keep out the noise.” Hype. Any possible distraction. But he knows all eyes will be on this game. This is a rematch between the student, Tata, and his teacher, Lee. Tata played for Lee at Saint Louis not so many years ago before going on to play at UCLA.
“He’s my head coach forever, since eighth grade. It’s very awesome to see the things that he’s done for Saint Louis, just phenomenal,” Tata said.