Red Raiders paced by defense in playoff opener
Kahuku's Tausili Fiatoa and Nalu Emerson celebrate after a defensive play. Sylvia Lee | SL
Nearly three weeks after it was on the wrong end of a game-winning play in a heartbreaking one-point loss, the Kahuku defense came through in a big way in Friday night's 27-7 playoff victory over host Campbell in Ewa Beach.
The Red Raiders got their revenge against the Sabers, who rallied their way to a 28-27 win the last time the teams faced off in the regular season.
This time around, however, it was a different story.
Kahuku got a pair of defensive scores less than a minute apart late in the second quarter on interceptions returns of 26 yards and 40 yards by Peter John Mataira and Ilaisa Fotu, respectively.
After posting 283 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns through the air on Oct. 6 — including the game-winning score on a 29-yard TD pass with 19 seconds left — Campbell was held to 164 passing yards without a touchdown (its lone score came on a 2-yard run by Sky Lactaoen in the first quarter).
"When we lost to them it was kind of hard for us," said Mataira, a junior defensive back. "We took that loss hard, but we've just been grinding in practice every day."
In the regular-season meeting, two Campbell quarterbacks combined to complete 17 of their 25 pass attempts (72 percent) without an interception, led by Krenston Kaipo's 10-of-15 performance for 172 yards and two TDs.
However, with Kaipo out for Friday's OIA Open Division semifinal contest due to a shoulder injury he sustained against Waianae the week prior, the Sabers offense was in the hands of fellow senior Kaniala Kalaola.
But for the Red Raiders, which Campbell quarterback was at the controls was of little consequence.
"Not really, no. It was the same game plan," said Fotu, a sophomore linebacker.
Instead, Kahuku's defense spent its week of preparation focusing on a slight tweak to its scheme.
"We were running a 4-2, I think, the first time we played them and then we're running a 3-4 now and it's helped us a lot. Everybody has just been communicating and helping each other," Mataira said.
The Red Raiders also got a boost from its special teams unit that was part of a string of 21 points in two minutes and one second of game time.
After Toalei Lefau found the end zone on a 7-yard TD run to tie the game at 7 with 4:24 left in the second quarter, Kahuku's ensuing kickoff toward the left sideline took a couple of fortuitous bounces before being picked up by Campbell's Pokii Adkins-Kupukaa from his own 1-yard line. With the Red Raiders' kickoff coverage team bearing down on him, Adkins-Kupukaa was only able to muster a four-yard return and the Sabers started their drive at their own 5-yard line.
After a short 6-yard completion from Kalaola to Adkins-Kupukaa on first down, Mataira intercepted Kalaola's second-down pass and maneuvered his way down the right sideline for the pick-6 to give his team the lead for good.
"That helped us a lot," Mataira said of the short kickoff return. "We strive to try to get them inside the 10 and it really helped."
The ball did not bounce Kahuku's way on the ensuing kickoff, which went out of bounds and gave Campbell possession at their own 35-yard line. Kalaola tossed a 2-yard pass to Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala on the first play of the drive, but was picked off by Fotu on the very next play, which was returned for another touchdown for the visitors.
"It felt good," Fotu said. "I was feeding off of (Mataira's pick-6) a lot."
The Red Raiders held a 21-7 lead at halftime and did not let down defensively in the second half.
While the Kahuku offense ran 29 plays for 135 yards after the intermission — including 23 rush attempts for 72 yards — Campbell was held to 13 plays for minus-6 yards of total offense in the second half.
After halftime, the Sabers completed only two of their six passes for four yards and ran the ball seven times for minus-10 yards.
The win gives Kahuku a chance at a fourth straight OIA championship after a roller coaster season that included three losses in a four-game stretch and the unexpected deaths of coaches Pele Leiataua and Tommy Heffernan.
"It feels good to get here. I mean, what this team has been through all year, not just with injuries, but to coaching staff as well — the loss of a couple of our coaches — it just shows the heart and the resiliency of our team right now, so it's good," first-year Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said after Friday's win.
The Red Raiders (7-3) will try for their record 26th league title when they face Mililani at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Aloha Stadium.