OIA’s big showdown set for Saturday
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
Kahuku fullback Toalei Lefau has as many touchdowns (4) in the OIA playoffs as he had carries during the regular season (4).
At this level, with only one day left before the Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I football championship is decided at Aloha Stadium, Kahuku and Mililani will make certain that nothing is left to chance.
Kahuku, the defending champion, was in elephant / rhino / impenetrable fortress mode over the previous two seasons under then-coach Vavae Tata. The “heavy” formation of the offense featured five imposing, massive linemen, two sizable tight ends, two bulldozing fullbacks and a tailback often built more like a middle linebacker. It was, and still can be, a brutal, merciless blueprint of intelligent design. More than a ton of poundage, all on the move at explosive speed, created to hammer any loose nail in its path.
But something happened after Tata stepped down. With an array of skill-position talent, led by quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava, first-year head coach Makoa Freitas opted to value balance. Unlike Tata’s Red Raiders, who began the sledgehammer approach as necessitated by QB injuries, Freitas’ background as a former pro lineman came into play. He wanted balance. Less predictability. Kahuku, which won the state crown in 2015, then lost to Saint Louis in last year’s final, is a different creature, though the engine remains the same.
Rebuilding the aerial attack has been a work in progress since March.
“I don’t think we even completed a pass in the state championship game last year, so it’s a lot of hard work,” Freitas said. “We’re basically using positions we haven’t used in the past couple years. To start from scratch like that last March, it’s a testament to the coaches and players.”
Built for the trenches and piloted through the jet stream. From time to time, Kahuku’s three-wideout set seems like a replica of the Tony Dungy-era Indianapolis Colts, the team Freitas suited up for just a few odd years ago. Maybe it makes Maiava a more mobile version of then-Colts QB Peyton Manning. The sophomore has much to learn, of course, before he reaches that tier, but at the varsity level, Maiava has become a different weapon on the field, never losing vision downfield, capable of winging the ball constantly if asked — he had 24 pass attempts in the first half against Kapolei three weeks ago — and more than willing to be an architect of the offensive craft. He hasn’t had to throw the ball more than necessary or any less than offensive coordinator, Faaesea Mailo, has requested.
“The passing game is coming along great and our OC and our assistants (deserve) all the credit. This is all his offense,” Freitas said. “(Mailo) came with his offense and talks to the receiver coaches and running backs coach and we try some things and see if our players can or can’t do it. It’s been a group effort. You see all their hard work pay off. The O-line coach has the protections down. They’ve come a long way.”
Freitas, a former offensive lineman, has placed great expectations on his Red Raiders in the trenches.
“Our two Samsons (Samson Reed, Samson Kapule-Si‘ilata), they do a lot. Feso Malufau. Longa (Draeteon) Thompson. Bryce Beatty. Whoever they call on to step up, they step. They’re the ones occupying double teams to let those ’backers through,” Freitas said. “Matt Faga, our D-Line coach, I think he’s the best DL coach in the state — him and Paipai Falemalu.”
The willingness of Kahuku to throw on first and second down, to hit the quick pass instead of running on third-and-5, makes defensive game planners less certain and perhaps a little bit queasy. Even with an extra week of planning. For the first time in recent memory, the OIA final follows a bye week.
“The more film I watch, the more I realize how good they are,” Mililani coach Rod York said. “You look at the results they’ve gotten. Basically, you can’t block them and they’re coming from all angles. The Bingham game, to travel that far and do what they did was pretty good considering their first-string quarterback didn’t play. Their defense and special teams are off the charts, to be honest.”
The defense, with playmakers like Miki Ah You in the linebacker corps, has been the cornerstone of Kahuku football for decades. It’s no different this season.
“It’s kind of like the (Baltimore) Ravens team when they had Trent Dilfer (at QB) and all those studs — Ray Lewis. Ed Reed,” York said. “The thing about it is they’re young. These guys are (mostly) juniors and sophomores.”
Of course, the Trojans are always up for a major challenge. Whether it was McKenzie Milton a couple of years ago or Dillon Gabriel today, they’ve trained their offensive personnel to be in constant attack mode. Milton, now on the Maxwell Award semifinalist list as a prolific QB for Central Florida, would often have his unit out-sprinting the chain gang as the next play unfolded. Gabriel is capable of the same while remaining efficient. The junior has thrown for 2,422 yards and 26 TDs with just six interceptions in 274 attempts.
“Five of those picks weren’t his fault. The receiver ran the wrong route,” York said.
Mililani, 10-0 including a forfeit win (Kaiser), has scored 418 points. Sometimes, it’s a matter of exploiting single coverage over the top. Ryan Chang has 28 receptions for 639 yards and nine TDs, almost all of them on deep throws. In all, six Trojans have at least 16 receptions and one TD catch.
The ground game is deep, with first-year starter Kilifi Malepeai (407 yards, eight TDs) and two-way performers Jalen Olomua (four TDs) and Darius Muasau (two TDs). When defenses take away most opportunities, Gabriel makes the read and keeps the ball. His numbers aren’t eye-popping — 154 yards — but the timing of his runs has led to a multitude of first downs and six TDs.
“Everybody can always be better. His decision-making is better, he’s comfortable in the pocket, comfortable getting out of the pocket,” York said.
The study time is ongoing, almost around the clock. On Wednesday night, York met up with Gabriel to study more video. Gabriel has one offer so far, from Navy, which operates the spread option. York added some new wrinkles to the offensive package because the signal-caller wants to stay home and play football after high school.
“He can run the RPO (run-pass option) and the spread option, two backs, the slot. He’s hungry. He wants to play for the University of Hawaii,” said York, a former Rainbow Warriors defensive lineman. “I’ve tweaked our offense to match UH’s offense. I went in and copied (assistant coach) Craig Stutzmann’s plays.”
The Trojans do all that and still get plays off in less than 10 seconds. It’s enough to drive a videographer to stock up on coffee and sugar-free Red Bull for Mililani games.
“I was hoping McKenzie was going to UH. When he went to (UCF), I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t know he was going to be this good, that fast,” York said. “Dillon’s got the same fire and he does the things you don’t see. He bugs me for film. He has a 4.0 GPA. We’re meeting at 9 o’clock tonight to study more video. Hopefully, Rolo (Nick Rolovich) offers him and Dillon goes up and changes that program. He makes the guys around him better, and he’s always trying to get better.”
For now, there’s business at hand.
“We’ve got to prove it this Saturday,” York said.
See the rest of the article here: OIA’s big showdown set for Saturday