HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Co-captains Trevor Grace, Ryan Nobriga, Jonathan Overton and Jay Angotti are four good reasons Punahou is in the state playoffs this weekend.
Buffanblu riding high
Long bus rides won't stop Punahou from focusing on winning the state championship
By Paul Honda
THEY TRUDGE downhill to the buses. Class finally got over at 3:30 p.m., shells are on and helmets are in tow.
The Punahou football team is jumping into yellow school buses for a little trip to Manoa.
In the 28 years since Punahou last won a league championship, the team has never had to practice this late in the season. Because Punahou's soccer teams are well into preseason training, the football teams spent the past three practices at UH.
The Buffanblu (10-2) will be there again this afternoon, gearing up for the Baldwin Bears.
The pesky Bears, unbeaten in 11 games, are champions of the Maui Interscholastic League. With a run-and-shoot offense not too different from Punahou's explosive attack, it makes for a potentially sensational semifinal matchup on Saturday in the HHSAA/First Hawaiian Bank State Championship semifinals at Aloha Stadium.
But first, the bus ride.
The team's co-captains -- Jay Angotti, Trevor Grace, Ryan Nobriga and Jonathan Overton -- are diplomatic about the whole deal, naturally.
"It's all right. It takes up a lot of time, so there's less time to practice and actually work on the stuff we need to do," said Grace, a right guard.
He is a classic thinker, probably future coaching material. Then again, with a 1,360 on the old SAT (and a 2,080 on the new one), coaching might not be a consideration.
NOBRIGA CAN THANK his teammates for the extended season.
Last year, the 5-foot-11 175-pounder suffered a neck injury as a linebacker. As a running back this season, he hurt a knee in midseason and was derailed. He returned to contribute in Punahou's 35-14 win over Aiea on Saturday.
He doesn't mind bus rides or long walks, and probably would crawl a mile for another chance to play.
"It's fine. There's nothing wrong with it. It takes time out of practice, get back late, but it's no big problem," Nobriga said.
Overton's brilliant fall is a byproduct of his easygoing nature and relentless determination. When opposing guards and tackles wilt in the late going, he kicks it up a notch. His sacks in clutch moments, often late in big wins, are memorable.
Maybe it's a matter of mentality. The 6-3, 245-pound defensive tackle doesn't mind the travel time on the bus.
"Umm, it's different. It's kind of fun, actually. Kinda loosens up the mood, gets us relaxed. It's weird. It's a change-up from what we normally do," he said.
Grace, at 6 feet, 220 pounds, gets the payoff.
"We always make the sophomores double up so the seniors get their own seats," he said of the ride back to campus. By the time they return, it is 6:20 p.m. and the sky is dark.
THE SEASON IS ending in the manner it began, with hours of preparation.
It began with a lot of sweat.
"The offensive line and running backs, the whole summer we'd go to practice early at 3 o'clock," Nobriga said. "We'd lift, go over plays and everybody else would come."
The desire to put the run in run-and-shoot at Punahou turned out to be a catalyst.
"We were tight and determined to run the ball. That's what our coaches wanted us to do. We wanted to run the ball this year. We got the motto from (Jon) Gruden," Nobriga added, referring to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.
"This is a very unique group. They made a decision to do whatever it takes to better themselves," coach Kale Ane said. "Lifting weights and sacrificing some things to get it, that's what they've done, and it's rubbed off on our underclassmen."
The seniors had enough credibility through their work ethic, but fortifying the entire team required communication.
"Maybe it's the way this team is playing, the way it's come together as a team," said Angotti, a 5-10 190-pounder who is one of the team's hardest-hitting tacklers. "All the seniors get together and teach the younger boys lessons about playing. It helps make a mature team."
"People don't know how determined we really are. We have a lot of team meetings that we call as players. It makes the team focus and bring the team up. Sometimes once a week, twice a week sometimes," he said. "We had that connection when we were sophomores, but we never had that much connection last year."
ANE AND HIS STAFF have put plenty of trust in their seniors.
"Being a leader isn't easy. What they say and how they say it is powerful," he said. "They've learned to become good leaders."
History will show that this group of seniors grew as a unit.
"It's about heart, I think," said Grace, who carries a 3.8 GPA and scored 2,080 out of 2,400 on the new SAT.
"In ninth grade, we won intermediate. We knew this year was gonna be a great year," he added.
"We were just motivated since intermediate," Overton noted. "We're a lot more together since we're seniors and we've played together since intermediate."
For Ane, defense is paramount regardless of the aerial show his offense displays every week. Having so many senior contributors on defense means more possibilities.
"We talk the same language. They understand how to read formations as a group. It allows us to have freedom to be creative with blitzes," said Ane, who graduated from Punahou in 1971 and went on to a career at Michigan State and in the NFL.
PUNAHOU'S TEAM SPEED is one of its most underrated strengths.
"I don't know if we have the best defense. Every year's fun, every year's different. I'm not surprised they're this effective. They have speed, but they also have the savvy to take advantage of that. They're not the fastest, biggest or strongest, but we understand what we do and do it well. We understand mismatches and maximize that," Ane said.
Even an O-lineman, Grace, gives his team's defense kudos.
"We have a lot of really talented guys. I think in this first game against Aiea and the championship game against Saint Louis, the defense stepped up and is finally getting the focus and attention they deserve," he said.
Higgins had the freedom to roam as the defense's rover, but has settled in more at outside linebacker of late. Overton simply gives offensive linemen headaches. Literally.
Grace, who lines up against Overton every day, knows this well.
"It's great to go up against someone good. He's big, and it's a challenge. He doesn't talk a lot. He's just a guy of action," he said. "He has one of the biggest hearts of all. He's a big guy, but he's in great condition. When it comes to the last few seconds, he picks up his game."
Overton, who has heard from Oregon State, may play offensive line in college. For now, he's just trying to stay on the field.
"That goes for our whole D-line. Our coach doesn't let us let up. If we show signs of fatigue, he'll replace us," he said of his clutch, late-game sacks. "The game's on the line, you get the adrenaline going, it's now or never."