No. 2 Mililani, No. 4 Kahuku clash for OIA Open title
Mililani wide receiver Cy Kuboyama-Hayashi, right, was chased down by Kahuku linebacker Aaron Fonoimoana-Vaomu, bottom, and defensive back Alex Fonoimoana-Vaomu during the teams’ regular-season meeting on Sept. 29 at Kahuku. Mililani snapped the Red Raiders’ home winning streak with a 38-10 victory.
Somehow, some way, the Kahuku Red Raiders keep overcoming adversity and heartbreak.
Injuries to key players like Miki Ah You and Kaonohi Kaniho. The losses of iconic pillars of the community, Tommy Heffernan and Pele Leiataua. Crushing defeats for homecoming and on the road.
No. 4 Kahuku (7-3) is playing its best football of the season since losing 28-27 at Campbell on Oct. 6. The Red Raiders have found new life on defense, permitting just 28 points in wins over Farrington, Kapolei and, in the OIA Open semifinal round, Campbell.
The Red Raiders face No. 2 Mililani (8-2) for the OIA Open championship today at Aloha Stadium.
“The last several games, we’re always losing 7-0,” Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said. “Against great teams, we cannot start slow. We have to start playing from the get-go.”
Mililani has been scorching hot since midseason losses to St. John Bosco (Calif.) and Punahou. The Trojans won the regular-season meeting with Kahuku 38-10, making it a sour homecoming night for Kahuku. That ended Big Red’s 51-game home-field win streak.
No Hawaii team has stopped Mililani quarterback Dillon Gabriel, a master of the run-pass option. The Army commit has passed for 2,994 yards and 34 TDs with just six picks in 381 attempts. He racked up 312 passing yards and two TDs in the first matchup with Kahuku.
“They’re seasoned now. Their defense is unsung. When Miki (Ah You) went down, the defense took a step back, but they’ve stepped up and they’re much improved now,” Trojans coach Rod York said of Kahuku. “You look at the pride they brought in a playoff game, to win at Campbell. Both teams already went through the ups and downs of the regular season. It’s go time. No excuses on both sides. Anyone can win a regular-season game, but we’ve got to prove it now.”
The Red Raiders, who also had back-to-back midseason losses, have been resilient on a daily basis. Running back Wes Alo-Maiava could return from injury. From defensive coordinator Sola Soliai’s quizzes at film study to the workmanlike leadership of safety Frisco Aveau, the pieces have come together.
“I don’t know if it’s a stretch. He might be lucky to be listed at 5-7 or 5-8, something like that, but he’s basically the quarterback of our defense,” Carvalho said. “He takes the Keala Santiago role of setting the DBs, setting everyone in place, calling the coverages. At the spur of the moment, he can call a (defensive) audible on the fly.”
It was preparation plus pre-snap recognition that led the Red Raiders to crucial interception returns for touchdowns during the second quarter of their 27-7 semifinal win over Campbell last week. Kahuku spends up to an hour each day in the film room.
“This is usually in one of the portables or in the weight-room classroom,” Carvalho said of the sultry study area. “Hawaiian air conditioning.”
Coordinators run the film work.
“Sola makes his point known and you’re on the board, drawing up schemes. Sola has tests and quizzes for the players. You have to know your fronts, blitzes, coverages,” Carvalho said. “Sola takes the quizzes home and grades them.”
It doesn’t end there. To give his defense a little extra incentive, Soliai has a system.
“What they accumulate is coins if they grade well. At practice, if the defense jumps offside or plays sloppy, they do their accountability running afterward, but if they have coins, they can do less running,” Carvalho said.
One of the big boosts came from sophomore Ilaisa Fotu, who returned one of the picks for 6. Peter John Mataira had the other return for a TD.
“We brought him up from the JV. His first game was against Farrington. To me, he is a true middle linebacker. He fills holes. He’s really tough,” Carvalho said of the 5-foot-11, 215-pound stopper. “Even though he’s young, he won’t back down from anyone.”
Ethan Erickson, who won the special teams top honor at the GPA Combine last May, has been excellent as a punter. While he helps Kahuku win the field-position battle, versatile Duke Heffernan confounded Campbell with an array of squib and pooch kickoffs.
Kahuku’s option package has shown occasional flashes of brilliance with sneaky speedster Robbie Sauvao at quarterback. Carvalho rates his comfort level with Sauvao running keepers and delivering pitchouts as an “eight” out of 10, even though the junior nearly lost the ball last week on a lateral to one of his running backs.
“Robbie gambles and that’s what great athletes do. They push the level of their performance and you take the bad with the good,” said Carvalho, whose offense has not been dependent on the option. “We’re not ruling it out. There’s a few wrinkles, but we’re not going to throw in the kitchen sink.”
Zealand Matagi has been a revelation in recent weeks with his burst and endurance. Toalei Lefau is a big target out of the backfield with good hands, ranking third on the team in receptions (15 catches, 132 yards, two TDs). Power would appear to be Kahuku’s edge, but running against the unbeaten Trojans is easier said than done.
“They’re fast. They’re not big, but they play great gap assignments and get upfield quick,” Carvalho said. “They have speed and they pursue well and gang tackle. It shows they’re tough kids to be so-called undersized to play at that level and get that production. They’re tough kids.”
York praised D-linemen Shane Kady, Mikey Agasiva, Ezra Save and Jon Tuiletufaga.
“They’ve been controlling the line of scrimmage and we expect them to control the line on Friday,” York said. “But it’s a big challenge. Kahuku’s heart is their O-line. They’re one of the best to double to the ’backers real well.”
When the teams met on Sept. 29, Kahuku rushed for 162 yards on 33 carries.
NO. 2 MILIANI TROJANS (8-2) VS. NO. 4 KAHUKU RED RAIDERS (7-3)
When: Today, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Aloha Stadium
TV: Spectrum OC 16
All-time series record: Kahuku leads 12-3
First meeting: Kahuku 41, Mililani 6, Sep. 23, 1977
Last meeting: Mililani 38, Kahuku 10, Sept. 29, 2018
Memorable meeting: The Trojans ended a 51-game home streak by the Red Raiders in a 28-point win at Carlton Weimer Field in September, marking the first time Kahuku lost on campus since 2007. Mililani’s Kilifi Malepeai rushed for three touchdowns and quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw for 312 yards and two TDs. It was Kahuku’s largest margin of defeat to a Hawaii opponent since losing 35-0 to Kamehameha to open the 2008 season.
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