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Kahuku Brings NIT Title to Hawaii

Photos: Jackie Finlan

Kahuku and Catholic Memorial treated the High School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) to a fantastic finale, with all the drama fit for a championship. On the very last play of the game, Kahuku scored the go-ahead try and conversion for a 33-29 win and NIT title.

The finalists started their NIT campaigns differently. For the third year in a row, Kahuku faced St. Joseph in the first round and won 57-0. Catholic Memorial played a totally new opponent – Tennessee state champion Columbia Central – and the Crusaders won their quarterfinal 41-7.

The semifinals evolved differently as well. The Wisconsin team faced Orchard Park in a rematch of last year’s 3rd place game, and the Crusaders controlled much of the match. Flyhalf Emily Henrich and power forward Laura LaVigne posed defensive problems and saw tacklers swarm on these two players in particular. But after the break Serena Roberts put in back-to-back, textbook tackles at the knees, setting the example, and the Crusaders pulled away for a 43-10 win.

Kahuku’s semifinal was also a 2017 rematch, and the Lady Raiders were looking forward to it. Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA) beat Kahuku 6-0 in last year’s NIT final, and so Kahuku made sure to take the first lead – one that it would never relinquish. The game reached a crescendo with approximately four minutes remaining, when Kahuku was yellow carded for obstruction and DSHA’s penalty try brought the score to 25-24. There was drama in the waning moments, as Kahuku missed a penalty goal and DSHA attempted to build one last attacking campaign. But the Raiders held on for the win.

“We had a lot of mistakes,” Kahuku coach Nusi Tukuafu said. “We gave up a lot of knock-ons, turning over the ball, but their counter-rucking was on-point. I want to say they stole 7 or 8 balls from us, so they were above and beyond normal teams.”

Tukuafu also tipped his hat to DSHA’s outside center, who scored two tries, “and knows how to get to the try line,” the coach said. He also lauded flyhalf Jackie Jarosz’s kicking game.

“There are a lot of things to fix,” the coach added. “We were selfish with the ball. We had maybe six overlaps with no one [defending] there and we decided to run at the posts. I can understand it from the seniors. This is their shot. They want to shine, and they think they’re going to make it from 22 meters out.”

Catholic Memorial and Kahuku played each other in last year’s semifinals, so there was familiarity there, and thus those nerves associated with an unknown weren’t as strong. That said, 2018 marked the first time the Crusaders featured in an NIT final, and they set the tone early on.

Two minutes in, flyhalf Allison Koenig took a lineout ball and sliced right through the defense for a try, which was converted by fullback Aly Cunningham. Kahuku struggled with penalties, earning a yellow card four minutes in and giving even more possession to the Crusaders. The result was another two tries after 20 minutes – one from Cunningham turning the corner, and a team try that worked through all the hands after a solid kick return. Cunningham also added a nice sideline conversion, 19-0.

But then Catholic Memorial got into a penalty groove, resulting in two quick yellow cards – one for repeated not-rolling-away, and the second for intentional knock-ons from the same player. Two converted tries followed, and Catholic Memorial took a 19-14 lead into the break.

“We got a slow start. I think the heat really got to us – that was something new for our team,” said Kahuku co-coach Arnetia Tukuafu. “It took them a while to wake up, but Catholic Memorial is such a great program. Even from last year [when we played them], we just loved the way they played. And they can take the hits and that’s what I love about it.”

Right after the break, flyhalf Nohea Uluave, who also handled the conversions, sent a grubber through the line, and the ball bounced perfectly into championship MVP Taina Scott’s hands. She pulled away and cut across two defenders for the centered try, 21-19 to Kahuku.

Again, the momentum shifted around penalty count, and Kahuku started giving up yardage that the Crusaders were happy to attack. A slowly evolving clearance kick was jarred loose in the tackle, and Catholic Memorial’s pressure defense scooped it up for the try, 26-21 with the Cunningham conversion. Kahuku took another neck tackle yellow in front of its posts, and Cunningham lined up the easy three, 29-21.

With approximately 10 minutes left in the game, the Lady Raiders started playing more in Catholic Memorial’s end, and the pressure stressed discipline. From an attacking five-meter scrum, Tiara Letoi – who routinely required more than three tacklers to bring her down – was too much to stop from crossing the line. It was the forward’s second try of the game, and this one closed the gap to 29-26.

Kahuku stayed in Catholic Memorial’s end and the Crusaders defended valiantly. Arnetia Tukuafu noted that the team had added motivation to keep pushing. Many of the founding members are seniors this year and graduating, but they also had a classmate pass away in January due to an alcohol-related accident. It was an emotional year, and the players were chanting their former classmate’s name throughout the game.

The last few minutes saw Kahuku banging on the door, and then a crucial not-rolling-away yellow card gave the Lady Raiders the advantage.

“Just nothing fancy! Just get the ball,” Arnetia recalled the thoughts running through her head the last few minutes. “But it all comes down to them. We tell them all the time, ‘We’re not on the field with you. We’re not in the classroom with you. It’s you, and ultimately you make the final decisions.’ We can cheer you on or whatever but you’re the ones doing everything. So that all came down to focus.”

The ball made its way to Anna Tufaga, who barreled over the line for the go-ahead points. Uluave added the conversion, 33-29, and the referee blew the whistle.

“It’s still unreal,” Arnetia said. “My husband and I have been chasing it for a few years, but it’s more emotional – our seniors, they started the club. So they’ve been with us for four years and it took all that time to learn everything and get here.”

Although a heart-breaking end for Catholic Memorial, the Crusaders deserved their spot in the final and once the wounds heal, will come out stronger – just like Kahuku did.

Kahuku Brings NIT Title to Hawaii

#NusiTukuafu #NoheaUluave #TainaScott #TiaraLetoi #ArnetiaTukuafu #AnnaTufaga

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