Kahuku coach Tata: ‘They were the better team tonight’


With Saint Louis leading 16-14 in the fourth quarter, Kahuku running back Kesi Ah-Hoy fumbled at the goal line during the 2016 HHSAA Open Division state championship football game against Saint Louis at Aloha Stadium on Saturday.

The Big Red Wall had withstood every challenge for two years.

On Saturday night, it crumbled just a bit, hazy dust floating into the atmosphere. By the end, an exhausted Kahuku defense had no way to stop Saint Louis, and the No. 1 seed fell to No. 2, 30-14, in a stunning upset for the Open Division championship.

Kahuku, unbeaten in 24 in-state games over a two-year stretch under head coach Vavae Tata — wound up surrendering 232 rushing yards to the Crusaders. Saint Louis quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the nation’s No. 1 dual threat and arguably the best at the position outright, was a tough hombre for the normally sure-tackling Red Raiders to handle.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior rushed for 136 yards on 18 carries, scoring on a 30-yard touchdown run in the second half to give Saint Louis some breathing room at 23-14.

“Their win is well-deserved,” Tata said. “They were the better team tonight.”

The Red Raiders’ normally air-tight pass defense was stung early on a TD strike by Tagovailoa to Jonah Panoke. Kahuku limited Tagovailoa to a relatively low 243 passing yards and picked him off once. But it wasn’t enough against a Saint Louis QB who could well be a Heisman Trophy candidate some day.

“This is a big loss,” Kahuku cornerback Stokes Nihipali-Botelho said. “I mean, we came in prepared, but it’s just the way we played the game. We didn’t execute our plays correctly. It just didn’t pan out right. Nothing really different (from last year, when Kahuku won 39-14). Saint Louis passed it tonight. We just didn’t do our part.”

Kahuku’s other returning All-State cornerback, Kekaula Kaniho, had returned five picks for touchdowns this season. Saint Louis didn’t throw in his direction very often.

“They earned that win. Any team can win on any given night, and they won tonight,” Kaniho said.

Equally stunning was Saint Louis’ defense, which slowed Kahuku’s ground attack just enough, keeping the Red Raiders from scoring in the second half. Kahuku rushed for 182 yards in the first half, nearly 6 yards per carry. Saint Louis, which was without linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia for large chunks of the game after he was hurt on the second play and then lost LB Noa Purcell to a head injury in the second half, picked up the slack with reserves.

Kahuku rushed for just 76 yards after intermission, and after falling behind by nine with 4:26 to go, the passing game couldn’t sustain a drive.

“It’s been a great ride with the guys,” Kaniho added. “All the memories we made here will carry on forever and friends for life, you know? That’s the thing to take away from this.”


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