HHSAA DIVISION I FOOTBALL
Top seed Kahuku ready to kick off
The state prep football playoffs begin this weekend with games set for tomorrow and Saturday night
WHEN TEAM after team canceled on controlled scrimmages with Kahuku earlier this season, Red Raiders coach Siuaki Livai lamented the lack of work his team was getting.
But all those byes may have been a blessing in disguise.
Kahuku (9-1) is the top seed and gets a first-round bye in the HHSAA/First Hawaiian Bank State Division I Football Championships, which open tomorrow.
This time, the Red Raiders are a little less antsy and a lot more focused.
Besides all the canceled scrimmages, Kahuku played just one nonconference game, which meant a lot of red helmets banging on red helmets on dusty afternoons at the northern tip of the Koolaus.
Despite the lulls, voters in the Star-Bulletin Top 10 never forgot Kahuku's 16-0 win over Kamehameha in late August. As the state's top private-school teams took turns knocking each other to the ground, it was Kahuku that stood a bit taller -- even after an upset loss to Windward rival Castle.
Since midseason, much more has happened. Castle was ousted from the playoffs. Kamehameha was eliminated in an Interscholastic League of Honolulu tiebreaker by Saint Louis, which went on to be eliminated by Punahou on Monday.
Punahou, unseeded despite its high ranking (No. 3), will face Aiea on Saturday. There is no bye for the ILH for the first time this year, which is another factor weighing in favor of the Red Raiders.
For the past five weeks, media and coaches have tabbed Kahuku as the No. 1 team in the state.
"You guys had us up
there a long time now," said Livai, who doesn't vote in the poll but obviously pays attention.
In the Division I and II brackets of the state tournament, Kahuku, Baldwin and Iolani appear to have the most rest time. Baldwin, the only other team besides Kahuku to garner No. 1 votes in the Top 10, is 11-0 and has a bye for a second week in a row.
Iolani, the ILH D-II representative, also has a second week without a game. That's good news for the Raiders, who are healing up after another physically brutal ILH regular season.
FOR THE REST, the march to a state championship begins this weekend. Here's a look at the Division I matchups:
Waianae (8-3) at Kealakehe (8-1)
Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
Winner plays Kahuku (9-1)
On paper: Waianae's Liko Manuel fared well in his debut as a starter. The lanky quarterback guided the Seariders over Farrington 17-7 to seal third place in the OIA.
If regular starter Henry Keomalu returns from an ankle injury, the senior brings more poise and experience to the Seariders offense. Manuel is a better passer, though, and that could prove pivotal against a Kealakehe defense that knows how to stop the run.
Curtis Jones, who ran for 86 yards on 21 carries against Farrington, leads a posse of Seariders running backs that has the benefit of a strong offensive line.
Kealakehe will likely miss the services of Max Papali'i and Desmond Hughes. Papali'i ran for two touchdowns in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title game against Keaau, but injured a knee.
Gabe Tuata, however, is healthy and is probably the best running back in the BIIF. Quarterback Tai Papali'i is nursing a minor injury, but his ability to execute play-action is a huge factor.
Kealakehe is a bit more familiar with the postseason after last year's opening-round loss to eventual finalist Leilehua. Unlike last year's Mules, Waianae is run-first.
"I'd rather have them pass," Kealakehe coach Sam Papali'i said.
Skinny: The Waveriders went through emotional extremes this season, particularly when Royden Kalavi died after a traffic accident near the school in September.
Papali'i spent years of coaching as an assistant in the college ranks. Guiding his players through the tragedy, however, still stirs up emotions in the grizzled veteran.
"To go through that, addressing the team. What everyone went through, I would never wish that on anybody," he said. "We had a processing period and bonded."
Kealakehe suffered its only defeat of the season -- to Keaau -- after Kalavi's death, but has since turned the engines back on. The title game was broadcast statewide, and the Waveriders ran on all but one play.
Papali'i doesn't say his team buried the playbook because of TV, but whether the Waveriders have enough of a passing game to get past a stingy Waianae defense is a key question. Waianae linebacker George Kauwalu leads a unit that has stymied many run-first teams this season.
"We run the ball and use play-action as needed," Papali'i said. "Why do anything else? We had control of the game."
X factor: Kealakehe will use a spread formation from time to time, but have the Waveriders mastered it?
The Kona Coast has long been a hotbed of football talent, going back to the days of Konawaena's dynasty in the '80s. A sellout crowd is expected for tomorrow's game.
Summary: The rushing attacks, run defenses and passing schemes could cancel each other out. That means the balance of the game could rest with the better special teams.
Punahou (8-2) vs. Aiea (8-3)
Saturday, 6 p.m. at Aloha Stadium
Winner plays Baldwin (11-0)
On paper: Most high school games take 2 hours. This battle between prolific run-and-shoot offenses could last 3 hours.
Good news for fans who want their money's worth. For defensive coordinators, though, it's a maze and puzzle that is unsolvable.
Aiea has turned to empty-backfield sets to compensate for injury and a thin backfield. Punahou has become the smartest run-and-shoot team on the island, running with conviction. In the 14-0 ILH-title-clinching win over Saint Louis on Monday, the Buffanblu ran 21 times, equaling Brett Kan's total of pass attempts.
Punahou easily could've drifted away from the ground game. Powerful running back Kainoa Carlson finished with just 27 yards on 15 carries. However, the Buffanblu made the right decision, keeping the ball away from Saint Louis' dangerous offense while giving its defense plenty of rest.
Punahou's defense won't be surprised by Aiea's attack, but the timing and execution of Kali Kuia and his large committee of receivers is unmatched by anyone in the ILH. Kuia will pass to almost any of his receivers and running backs, starters and reserves alike.
Lofa Liilii and Josh Blakemore have become one of the best 1-2 receiver combos in the state, but it all comes back to Kuia, whose accuracy in clutch situations is among the best.
Kan isn't quite the scrambler that Kuia is, but his confidence in the pocket has improved significantly. Defenses used to focus exclusively on wideout Miah Ostrowski, but Kan threw to seven different targets in the Saint Louis game. Zac Yamagishi and River Kim have been as productive as, if not more than, Ostrowski in recent weeks.
Few teams throw to running backs as often, or as well, as Punahou.
Skinny: Aiea's defense is relatively healthy, but did not see a lot of run-and-shoot in the Red West or in the playoffs. Getting pressure on Kan against an underrated Punahou O-line is the biggest key of the game.
X factor: Punahou rover Sam Higgins could be the difference, particularly when Aiea goes to its five-receiver sets. Higgins' speed and versatility are a huge factor in Punahou's defensive calls.
Summary: If the Buffanblu grind out yardage on the ground, that will ease the pressure on their defensive unit. That approach worked in the win over Saint Louis and could prove to be the difference tomorrow.