Spring '17 Awards: Standout HS Team
Kahuku High School from Oahu, Hawaii's North Shore stood out as the Girls' High School Team of Spring 2017. The girls' program is driven by head coach Nusi Tukuafu and wife Arnetia, who not only run the two varsity teams but also nurture the youth feeders. They provide direction for the young program, and the players have dedicated themselves to making an immediate impact on the national scene. With many factors working against them, Kahuku fell six points short of a national title this year - a feat worth recognizing.
Kahuku debuted at the single-school tournament last year and performed admirably, dropping a two-point quarterfinal to 2016 champion St. Joseph Academy before finishing fifth. That first-round loss, however, sat with the team and motivated returners as they built toward the 2017 event.
“The biggest motivators on the team were our team captains, Kanani Uluave and Amberae Falemalu,” Tukuafu said. “They also showed leadership qualities during our ‘Hell Week' training in the pre-season, which it made it easy to select them as captains for the 2017 season. Their consistency in attendance, performance and off-the-field leadership had earned the respect of teammates and peers at school. They are very well disciplined, well mannered, and give their best at every practice, which is a reflection of the families they come from.”
The duo led the team to a repeat Hawaii state championship and then became instrumental in keeping the squad focused as it spent the subsequent five weeks building toward nationals. Players worked on their mental fortitude while Tukuafu built up their skill set.
“When you first start coaching a system, if the kids pick it up, then you can keep adding on it. If they don’t catch onto the system and you have to keep re-teaching it, then it wears you down coaching wise,” Tukuafu said. “When the team first started two years ago, many of them were 8th and 9th graders, and now they’re sophomores and juniors, so they understand the system and we just keep building on. They’re very coachable kids.”
Then the seeding for the single-school championship came out, and the North Shore side received a jolt.
“Last year, the players felt robbed … so when the draw came out, they were actually excited,” Tukuafu said of the quarterfinal matchup against St. Joseph Academy. “That was already our biggest focus coming in: Don’t lose the first game.”
The team had some hurdles to overcome – namely, exhaustion. Keep in mind that Elkhart, Ind., is six time zones east of Hawaii. And to boot, the tournament once again overlapped with graduation weekend. So the seniors (four of them starters) arrived the morning of the tournament. Throughout the day, players napped when they could, and when a two-hour rain delay pushed Kahuku’s second game deeper into the evening, players flat-out crashed in their clothes after a late team dinner.
Some of that fatigue played out in the team’s quarterfinal, but the players tripled their second-half output for a 22-0 victory over St. Joseph Academy. When the championship resumed, Kahuku squared up against Catholic Memorial in the single-school semifinals.
“They played great defense against us – man to man, and that took our girls off guard,” Tukuafu said. “Catholic Memorial, they can actually hit. They were the only team to score a try on us, and they had to work for it. They are a very well coached, very disciplined team. Much respect to them and their coaching staff. ”
The 17-5 win afforded a berth to the final against Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA). Kahuku emptied the tank against the longtime Midwest champion, which has been competing at the national invitational since its inception back in 2000. Tukuafu noted the experience gap, citing penalties and a long bout of try-eyes (but also questioned the grounding of at least one dive-over), as well as DSHA’s work in the breakdown.
Tukuafu pointed to senior wing Shan Keaweehu and senior flanker Ofa Kauvaka for great defensive performances. They kept the integrity of the sideline and interior intact, and prevented any tries against. In the end, DSHA flyhalf Jackie Jarosz kicked two penalty goals, one in each half, for the 6-0 win.
“Overall they’re in good spirits,” Tukuafu said. “I told them, ‘Keep your heads up. You all made history today by being the first high school girls’ team from Hawaii in any sport that has made it to a championship match for nationals, so be proud of the way you played – but also know there were plenty of mistakes.’ They already want to start working on it at home. They want to train and be ready for when we travel in January.”
That’s the mark of a good team, with good coach and player leadership. Kahuku has a lot of momentum brewing around it – with the youth feeders gaining traction and other sports’ athletes taking note of the rugby team’s accomplishments.
“My girls are just as rugged as the boys are. The girls are just as big and rough, they tackle and teach each other,” Tukuafu said. “There are a lot of girls back at home who see Lindenwood, Harvard, Bowdoin, Brown, Queens University [of Charlotte] talking to our girls after the exposure at nationals. Now there will be an increase in girls looking to make that transition since there are not many offers in the other high school sports for girls. Rugby now is another avenue for many of the island girls to get post-high school education at a credible university, which has always been a goal of ours here at Kahuku.”
Stay tuned for more spring 2017 awards, which highlight high school, college and club performances from individuals and teams.