Kahuku’s stifling defense has its day

Kahuku head coach Vavae Tata lifted his arms up in celebration as time ran out on last night’s 39-14 victory over Saint Louis in the Division I state championship game at Aloha Stadium. Jamm Aquino / Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

This Kahuku defense, they had it covered.

You could go all the way back to the first game of the season, when the attacking Red Raiders defensive unit stopped Campbell cold. That was the first sign of things to come.

And it just kept getting better and better. All 11 starters made names for themselves and the team finished up by shutting down three potent offenses in a row, culminating in Friday’s 39-14 victory over Saint Louis for the Division I state championship at Aloha Stadium.

You can’t dismiss the contribution of the offense, with Kesi Ah-Hoy bulling his way behind a bruising offensive line all night long.

But, without this powerhouse defense, the championship koa trophy would have been much harder to get.

Where do you start in this circle of 11, all of whom made life miserable for Crusaders quarterback Tua Tagovailoa?

Well, wherever you start, it just leads to the next guy and so on until you get back to the first guy.

I guess a good place to start is outside linebackers Hirkley Latu and Manaia Atuaia. They add enormously to the pressure that the front four is already giving. Sometimes, when needed, they disguise the pressure and hang back in coverage.

And that leads to the linemen, ends Bradlee Anae and Aliki Vimahi, who are both 6-foot-4 and play an in-your-face style. Run-stopper Lono Kanongataa is at tackle and he gets help plugging up the middle from inside linebackers Pesa Lefau Jr., and Aaron Tapusoa.

Tapusoa pulled through for two sacks against Saint Louis and Kanongataa and Anae had one each.

That’s the ominous front seven right there. What did Tagovailoa think about them?

“That (pass rush) threw everything off for us,” he said after the game. “It’s the best defense we’ve seen all year, by far. We couldn’t get anything going.”

The mastermind of the Kahuku defense, head coach Vavae Tata, explained the concept after the game: “The front seven is there to contain and apply pressure on the quarterback. We want the quarterback feeling like he is running out of time and thinking that he has to get rid of it quick. Harass the quarterback so he throws the ball up and let the defensive backs go and get it.”

That fierce pass rush also led to the vultures waiting in the defensive backfield. Wait, not just vultures. Hawks, too. They attacked and made plays on Saint Louis receivers all night, and then picked the bones clean by intercepting Tagovailoa three times. Two of those were by cornerback Stokes Botelho and one was by a senior leader, safety Keala Santiago. Cornerback Kekaula Kaniho and safety Codie Sauvao led the team in tackles with five each and both had a forced fumble. Kaniho also recovered a fumble as did Santiago and Kanongataa.

Wait, what did we say earlier, that after we named all 11, it would come back to the first guy mentioned? That would be Latu. He was there at Junior Ah You‘s restaurant the day that Tata was hired. And, like any junior going to be a senior, he was worried about what was in store. Would they improve or go downhill with a new coach?

The answer is now in the history books.

Latu had two tackles and two pass breakups in the victory. Late in the game, he wrapped up Saint Louis’ Jahvin Spear near the sideline but had trouble wrestling him down. The whistle blew and so he gave Spear a tap on the helmet as if to say, “Good game.” All the Kahuku coaches were yelling at Latu in celebration and he looked back and gave a knowing smile. This time, it was as if to say back to the coaches, “Yes, we did it. We are champions. I know!!”

Center Jed Heffernan, a captain on offense, summed up what coach Tata has meant to the team in his one year as coach.

“I love the way he coaches,” he said. “At first we had to get used to him and then we got on the boat. He brought in a whole new defense that no one here had seen before. And he brought back smash-mouth football. Not only that, he taught us life lessons and he expected nothing but greatness from us.”

Greatness. Kahuku stopped the player many felt was unstoppable, Tagovailoa, and Saint Louis’ offense that was averaging 39.7 points per game.

The Red Raiders (13-0) also shut down Mililani 20-7 in the OIA title game and Waianae 13-0 in the state D-I semifinals.

Tagovailoa’s 3-yard TD run in the third quarter marked the first rushing touchdown Kahuku has yielded all season.

In 13 games, opponents scored 53 points on the Red Raiders — an average of 4.1 points per outing. The Saint Louis offense only scored 7 on Kahuku; the Crusaders’ other TD was on a blocked punt return. A similar thing happened against Mililani, which scored its only touchdown on a return of a fumble by the Kahuku offense.

Only 39 (five TDs, three extra points and two field goals) of those 53 points came against the Red Raiders defense in 13 games, exactly a field goal per game.

“This is what we live for,” Santiago said. “This is what we do. We play football all year long. We play football in the streets or wherever. It runs in our blood.”


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