HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
Kahuku reminded by ESPN that it’s crowded at the top
The network is shadowing the state's best team as it prepares for the state semifinals
Being a perennial powerhouse means Kahuku, in the midst of preparation for its HHSAA/First Hawaiian Bank State Football Championships semifinal game against Waianae, is being followed and watched quite closely.
Last year, it was USA Today that put a major spotlight on the Red Raiders. This week, it is ESPN.
"It is hard, and it takes focus away, but it's an opportunity I can't stop," Kahuku coach Siuaki Livai said. "It'll be good for all of Hawaii football."
The crew from Bristol, Conn., is documenting the Red Raiders' week, including a visit to the homes of some players yesterday.
"They went into some of the homes to see the Thanksgiving tradition, the whole 9 yards," Livai said.
Ah, turkey day. A day of peace, gathering and gluttony. Livai isn't too concerned about the latter activity.
"We don't play until Saturday, so we're not too worried," he added. "But we better be ready. Waianae is Waianae. They're good and they'll be ready.
Kahuku meets Waianae in the 4 p.m. game at Aloha Stadium. Unbeaten Baldwin battles Punahou at 7 p.m. in the other semifinal.
The final four represent the most enduring of teams in a season of extreme parity and competitive balance. Among the teams that didn't qualify for the state tournament: Kamehameha, which defeated California powerhouse Edison and Interscholastic League of Honolulu champion Punahou twice; Leilehua, a finalist last year after upsetting Kahuku in the semifinal, but decimated by injuries this season; Saint Louis, the ILH runner-up which defeated Utah power Davis, as well as Kamehameha (three times); Castle, the Oahu Interscholastic Association East champion, which upset Kahuku during regular-season play.
The list goes on and on. But the final four have earned their place. Punahou knocked off Timpview, then-ranked No. 1 in Utah, early in the season. The Buffanblu finished the ILH regular season in a three-way tie for first, necessitating a tiebreaker series that led to a 14-0 win over Saint Louis.
Kahuku bounced back from the midseason loss to Castle and won the OIA championship with dominant defense and a nearly unstoppable ground attack.
Waianae, after a period of struggle, has returned to its winning ways with an infusion of talent from last year's OIA junior-varsity powerhouse.
Baldwin is as much a long shot as any, winning its third Maui Interscholastic League title in four years, despite the loss of key linebackers and wide receivers to graduation.
Here's a look at the Division I matchups.
Kahuku (9-1) vs. Waianae (9-3)
On paper: Smashmouth football at its best. Old-school, grind-it-out, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-rubber-particles football. The forecast is for rain this weekend. Lots and lots of Hawaiian showers.
This game features some of the state's top defensive players. Kahuku's B.J. Beatty (6-2, 215) and Micah Wiley (6-0, 226) are unmatched, while linebacker Kevin Unga (6-2, 222) benefits from the inside play of defensive tackle Kaniela Tuipulotu (6-2, 261).
Tuipulotu amassed five sacks in the win over Aiea.
Waianae's George Kauwalu (5-11, 195) has impressed from Day 1, when the Seariders shocked Saint Louis at Raymond Torii Field. Former defensive end Junior Faliuga is now part of a resilient secondary.
"Both defenses will decide a lot of things in this game," Livai said. "You know, our offense can run the ball. Everybody talks about it and how boring it is. It's easy to criticize, but that's what everybody else is doing, trying pass and make big plays. I just want to take what we do right and do good, and execute that."
Livai's team struggled at times with execution and timing early on due to a lack of controlled scrimmages and nonconference games. Last week's opening-round bye was a blessing, however. With everyone healed up and strong, he'll stick to basics.
"Hopefully, like always, out defense will give us the opportunity to do something," he said.
Surrounded by media attention and community expectations, Livai smiles about the reunion of two old OIA powers.
"I'm happy for Waianae. We've missed them all these years. It's good to see them uplifted, their school and community," the algebra teacher said, offering kudos to Waianae's coach-counselor. "(Danny) Matsumoto, I have a lot of respect for."
Skinny: Neither team has a desire to deviate from the game plan that has led to success. For a time, when Inoke Funaki was their quarterback, Kahuku adopted some run-and-shoot wrinkles after Livai sought the teaching of UH quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison.
Today, the Red Raiders are a classic I formation team, running between the tackles with power and precision. Despite a key loss to the O-line, Kahuku had dominated foes in the trenches. The most appreciative beneficiary is Malosi Te'o (5-9, 185), who emerged from a backup role in the late season to become the state's premier running back.
Kahuku last played in the OIA title game two weeks ago, a 26-16 win over Aiea. Te'o rushed 15 times for a whopping 248 yards, including touchdown runs of 73, 57 and 72 yards.
Waianae sees a run-first offense every day at practice, but Te'o has breakaway speed that is rivaled by few statewide.
Neither team wants to deviate from the run-first philosophy, but eventually one or both will have to connect through the air.
X factor: The run normally sets up play-action for both teams, but with the offensive units focused on the run, passing may be a rarity.
Kahuku gets reliability and consistency from quarterback Kaulin Krebs (6-0, 165), though backup Jacob Kahawaii (6-4, 198) has the stronger arm. Waianae starter Henry Keomalu (5-9, 200) is a leader at quarterback, but sat out the last two games with an ankle injury. Reserve Liko Manuel (6-3, 170) has a more accurate arm, but has only two starts and has yet to see a defense with the speed and aggression of Kahuku.
Summary: The mystique of No. 1-ranked Kahuku may hypnotize some opponents, but the Red Raiders are a beatable team that focuses on two components: running the football and stopping the run. Right now, no other team does these two things as well. Not even close. Waianae's ability to move the chains will be as important as containing Te'o.
Baldwin (11-0) vs. Punahou (10-2)
On paper: In an odd twist from last year's talented, MIL runner-up squad, the Baldwin Bears simply ruled the league.
Gone were a host of all-league standouts like receiver Cody Nakamura and linebacker Trenson Himalaya. Star-Bulletin Defensive Player of the Year Kaluka Maiava graduated, as well, and now suits up for No. 1 Southern Cal.
Also departed was coach Chad Kauhaahaa, now an assistant at Weber State. The forecast was partly cloudy, at best.
Baldwin's staff made up for the losses on the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Pohai Lee remained, and defensive coordinator Jimmy Morimoto stepped up to take the reins.
The result was an outstanding season for quarterback Kalehua Moniz (5-8, 182) as the Bears run-and-shoot, in its fourth season, continued to baffle the run-heavy MIL. Wide receiver Colten Quinabo (5-11, 172) led a young, gifted group of receivers.
Yet, they have their doubters. The only ranked team Baldwin faced all year was defending league champ Lahainaluna, a talented, but relatively young group.
Punahou, meanwhile, runs a very similar offense and has faced two of the state's prolific run-and-shoot attacks in Saint Louis and Iolani.
Skinny: Punahou is aware of Baldwin's bag of tricks, but having never seen the Bears play in person, the Bears are shrouded in mystery.
While the Bears see the run-and-shoot daily at practice, it will be difficult to replicate Punahou's hot quarterback, Brett Kan (6-2, 185) and his corps of experienced receivers. Miah Ostrowski (5-9, 163), River Kim (5-9, 175) and Zac Yamagishi (5-7, 160) make up for a lack of height with excellent routes, hands and concentration.
X factor: Baldwin's ability to stop Punahou's running game out of the offset-I slot will be a huge factor. Punahou made a commitment to "Pound the Rock," as their motto states, from spring practice. Running backs Colin Viloria (5-9, 175), Ryan Nobriga (5-11, 175) and bruiser Kainoa Carlson (6-0, 198) have enjoyed the mix of wide-open passing and smashmouth football.
"We take what people give us," Punahou coach Kale Ane said. "I'm a (former) lineman, and the mentality is the more you run, the tougher we get. We need to stick with it if we're going to make a commitment to it."
The decision to add multiple sets made Punahou less predictable than the average run-and-shoot, shotgun-only team. "It's given us balance, and it's helped our quarterback. It's asking a lot to cover the run and the pass. The kids have made the commitment to do the extra things that most successful teams do," Ane said.
Summary: Discipline will be the difference for Punahou's swift defensive unit. All Baldwin needs is a big play or two from special teams or its package of trick plays to gain momentum. Punahou, though, has the best balanced team of the final four in the tournament, and that will give Baldwin its toughest test yet.