Can Kahuku take it to next level?

"For me, I like challenges," said Siuaki Livai, coach of defending state champion Kahuku. "I always look to see who else is out there." Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Supposedly, the Kahuku High School football team shook an 800-pound gorilla named St. Louis off its back with last year's 26-21 upset in the state title game.

And you would think that this year's Red Raiders, with eight starters back on offense and three all-state players returning from that championship squad, might be the first from Kahuku to enter a season as the team to beat in Hawai'i.

If that weren't enough, one would imagine that Friday night's 19-14 victory over Utah powerhouse Skyline of Salt Lake City certainly would help put the Red Raiders on the national map.

But when USA Today's first Super 25 rankings of the season were released yesterday, Kahuku was nowhere to be found. St. Louis, of course, was ranked No. 25 and also ranked No. 5 in the West Regional rankings. The Red Raiders did not even rank among the West's top 10.

Even though Kahuku beat St. Louis last year, Red Raiders coach Siuaki Livai still wants to take his program to where Lee has taken his: to the national level.

Last year's state championship helped, and people on the Mainland did take notice.

Student Sports Inc., in its third year of national football rankings, has Kahuku at No. 31 in its preseason Fab 50. St. Louis is No. 36.

"If Kahuku runs the table and can win the state title a second straight year, they'll be ranked a lot higher," said Mark Tennis, who compiles Student Sports' Fab 50 along with Doug Huff. "They'll be in the top 25, and if the teams ahead of them lose, then maybe they'll be even higher. Right now, they're poised to get to that spot."

Which is one of the reasons Livai scheduled Skyline, winner of five straight Utah 5A (top level) championships from 1995-99, in the first place. In 1998, Kahuku also played reputable programs from Banning (Wilmington, Calif.) and Morse (San Diego).

"For me, I like challenges," Livai said. "I always look to see who else is out there."

Kahuku beat Banning, 47-14, and Morse, 22-13. Tennis said the Skyline game also would draw Mainland interest.

"Games like those are very important to anybody who follows the country," Tennis said. "It makes it easier when you're cross-referencing. Ranking teams is still an inexact science, but when a Texas power like Lee-Midland loses to a Louisiana power like West Monroe, 38-6, it gives you a glimpse of how strong certain states are."

Livai agrees that ranking high school football teams nationally mostly is guesswork, but he said Kahuku would deserve strong consideration if the Red Raiders can go undefeated and knock off St. Louis again.

"If we do that, then we'd have beaten two national programs in the same season," Livai said. "We would have to be right up there."

The Red Raiders definitely have the potential to repeat as state champions.

All-state returnee Inoke Funaki was named Most Athletic Quarterback at the Brigham Young University football camp in Provo, Utah, in June. Receiver Loga Fonoimoana was named Most Valuable Player of that same camp.

All-State running back Mulivai Pula, at 5-feet-11, 215 pounds, finished third in last spring's O'ahu Interscholastic Association's 100-meter finals.

Four starters return on an offensive line that averages 293 pounds, and fullback Earvin Atuaia tips the scales at 250. In addition to Fonoimoana, Funaki has two other quality receivers in Moana Hafoka and James Kamerer.

"This matches some of the top offenses we've had in the past," Livai said. "We have a lot of weapons. Our '99 team had a talented offense, but the edge we have this year is with our passing game. That's really making a difference."

In the victory over Skyline, Kahuku threw the ball a stunning 26 times, completing 15 of them for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Those are rare numbers for the traditionally run-oriented Red Raiders.

Fonoimoana, the backup quarterback, threw two halfback option passes, completing one for 46 yards. Kahuku also ran a hook-and-lateral play that went for 56 yards and a touchdown.

"In the past, nobody respected our passing game," Livai said. "Now, they'll have to."

Defensively, Kahuku returns all-state end Jonathan Mapu, whom many regard as Hawai'i's top college prospect. Mapu is 6-2, 250, and is athletic enough to be used as a tight end. He caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Funaki against Skyline, on a ball that had to be reached out for with one hand.

With Mapu being doubled-team frequently by Skyline, Darrell Tachibana emerged as another potential star on the line.

The secondary was said to be an area of concern, but Viliami Nauahi and Trumaine Oto came up with key interceptions in last week's game.

As in the past, Kahuku's biggest weaknesses may be in penalties, turnovers and special teams. The Red Raiders were flagged 12 times for 100 yards on Friday. They lost two fumbles and were intercepted once in the crucial, final seven minutes of the game.

In addition, an extra point attempt was blocked and a two-point conversion failed.

Those kind of things might be expected in the first week of the season, but similar mistakes have cost Kahuku championships before.

"We need to polish up a lot of things," Livai said. "There's pressure to perfect what we had last year. We did it once; now we have to maintain it."

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