Elephant in room; elephant package not as much

Kesi Ah-Hoy moved from quarterback to free safety this season and was a large force in helping Kahuku to its second straight state championship game. Cindy Ellen Russell / Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Nobody’s talking about the elephant in the room, and now is a good time to get the conversation started.

Or should we call it the elephant package that wasn’t used as much as it could have been?

The focus right now is squarely and deservedly on Saint Louis, and more specifically on star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after the Crusaders’ 30-14 victory over Kahuku for the Open Division championship Saturday night at Aloha Stadium.

But that focus up until kickoff (actually, it was up until a fourth-quarter fumble that started the night’s wheel of fate against Kahuku) was keenly on the Red Raiders. Oddly enough, it was the opposite circumstance from one year ago, when all eyes were on how unstoppable the Saint Louis offense was until Kahuku shut it down for the top-tier title.

2015 was the year when Kahuku went untraditional in the stretch run and used its elephant package almost exclusively on offense, a perfect complement to an unyielding defense that will be long remembered as one of the best — if not the best — units the state has seen.

And that’s the crux of this article. The offensive personnel used in that jumbo package did not change drastically in one year, so why go back to a traditional I-formation offense most of the time this year?

It’s a legitimate question — the elephant in the room that nobody is talking about. You could also call it second-guessing from the peanut gallery. A call to Kahuku head coach Vavae Tata Monday afternoon in an effort to ask that question was not immediately answered.

A year ago, when Kesi Ah-Hoy ran that elephant package from the quarterback position to the state-title victory, many around the state thought the move was brilliant. Tata had no problem whatsoever with all but abandoning the passing game.

The Red Raiders’ offensive plan was: “OK, we’ve got everybody bunched up tight and we’re going to push forward. Stop us, if you can. Snap the ball to Kesi over and over again and have fun tackling him.”

It worked.

This season, some of the offensive attention turned to freshman quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava, who had received an offer in the summer from Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Before the season started, it was hard to know what Tata would do with the situation. A QB who hasn’t seen one varsity snap walking on to a team that has built its legacy on the run? There were many who thought Tata would use Maiava sparingly and break him in gradually through the years.

But it turned out that Maiava became the starting quarterback and stayed in that post all season, with the Red Raiders running mostly from the “I” formation. Maiava had his share of success in both passing and running and he was a factor in leading the Red Raiders to the title game.

It seemed quite possible, though, that Ah-Hoy — who started as the free safety all season — would be put in at quarterback when Kahuku needed that bit of magic. Maybe for the biggest game of the regular season, when Kahuku went to Bishop Gorman in September? But that didn’t happen.

The argument could be made that Ah-Hoy, who is a truly gifted athlete and can play anywhere on the field, was needed on defense. It’s a good argument, too, but we’re talking about the quarterback who rushed the ball 30 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns to beat the Crusaders last year. So that argument can go both ways.

And so there the Red Raiders were in the state final Saturday night, showing off their rugged ground game against Saint Louis. Harmon Brown and Elvis Vakapuna and others ripped off some big gains behind that massive offensive line. Some of the plays were run out of that elephant package, too, and Kahuku got temporary leads of 7-6 and 14-13.

But that elephant package was not used like it had been in 2015, and there was no sign of Ah-Hoy on offense until he was called on for six carries late in the game. In a short-yardage goal-line situation that would have given Kahuku another lead, though, Ah-Hoy fumbled it away and into the waiting hands of Saint Louis’ Isaiah Tufaga in the Crusaders’ end zone in the fourth quarter. Saint Louis drove down to score on the other end to make it 23-14 and the tides had turned for good.

As it turned out, Maiava — on the rare times he dropped back to pass — was hounded by Saint Louis’ defensive line. He went 0-for-3 and was sacked three times.

Perhaps the Red Raiders could have used Ah-Hoy a bit more on offense during the season, preparing him for the eventuality that they may need him when everything was on the line. They actually did go to him in a crucial situation on offense. But was he fully ready for it? Did he have enough live reps?

You hear coaches say, “Give the ball to your horse.” Sure, Kahuku has a ton of horses and it is hard to pick which one to ride, but one of the best Red Raiders football players ever, Kesi Ah-Hoy, proved last year that he was “THE” horse and he didn’t get a real chance to do it again this year.