Star-Bulletin Sports

Wednesday, October 3, 2001


Na Alii receiver Bryan Tucker-Sallas is second on
the team with 231 receiving yards.

Back on top

Aiea is 4-0 in the White
Conference behind a potent
offense and surprising defense

By Jason Kaneshiro

IT'S been a while since Aiea High School's football team has topped a list not arranged in alphabetical order.

While Aiea has fielded solid squads over the years, Na Alii haven't hung a championship banner in the school's gym since 1992.

But this year's squad is making a run at the Oahu Interscholastic Association's White Conference title by learning from the struggles of the past.

"Last year we were really young and we were in the Red division," Aiea head coach Wendell Say said. "So the dividends are paying off from having been so young and taking our licks last year."

Aiea is 4-0 and tied with Roosevelt for the top spot in the OIA White entering its home game against Nanakuli Friday night.

Aiea quarterback Lole Laolagi is second in the OIA
White Conference with 1,050 yards passing. He's
thrown 14 touchdowns on just 3 interceptions.

Roosevelt travels to take on Waipahu (3-1) in another pivotal conference battle on Friday.

Aiea dropped to the OIA White after a 2-6 season in the Red Conference last year. Sophomores and juniors filled several key positions for Na Alii and the inexperience showed in four losses by six points or less.

Aiea opened the 2000 season with a 13-12 loss to Farrington. A few weeks later Na Alii fell to Leilehua 17-14 and Mililani 29-27. A 6-0 loss to Kaimuki only added to the players' frustration.

"I think they understand more that football is a game of inches," Aiea defensive coordinator Mika Liilii said. "Now these guys know that each down is really important."

The losses fueled the team's offseason workouts and Aiea began the new season with a preseason victory over Castle of the OIA Red. Na Alii have gone on to beat Radford, Kalani, Waipahu and Kalaheo by an average score of 33-10 in the regular season.

Senior quarterback Lole Laolagi leads an Aiea offense averaging a conference-best 367 yards per game.

Laolagi, who switched from receiver to quarterback in the middle of last season, has completed 60 percent of his passes and leads the OIA with 14 touchdown passes. He threw for six scores in a 46-27 win over Kalaheo on Sept. 28. Receiver Chris Antonio averages more than 15 yards per catch and has four touchdowns.

"I'm getting pretty comfortable now," Laolagi said. "I'm more confident staying in the pocket instead of running the ball."

The defense has surrendered just over 10 points per game and has two shutouts to its credit this season.

"The defense has been the biggest surprise," Say said. "We lost a lot of defensive experience, but the kids who returned have really stepped it up."

Say credits young assistants like Liilii and offensive coordinator Amosa Amosa for injecting energy into the Aiea program.

Liilii was a football standout at Castle and played linebacker at the University of Hawaii. Punahou Aina, another former UH linebacker, assists Liilii with the defense. Amosa was an all-Western Athletic Conference offensive lineman for the Rainbows in the 1980s.

Since their arrival three years ago, Aiea's roster has grown from less than 30 players in Say's early years as head coach to 60 this season.

"The new staff is young, energetic, they show a lot of commitment and the kids believe in them and buy into what they're doing," said Say, who started coaching at Aiea in 1980 and became head coach in 1992. "They make the game more fun for these kids."

The coaches have also laid down the law for the young men.

Like many in Aiea's student body, Liilii was raised in Halawa public housing and knows the challenges they face on a daily basis.

And as they teach technique and strategy, the staff also stresses discipline and the "three As" -- attitude, accountability and appreciation -- in their dealings with the players.

"We set down guidelines, and if they don't follow them, there's going to be consequences," Liilii said.

"I grew up in the housing, the same way a lot of these guys grew up. That's why the respect was automatic. They know me from off the field and they know what I'm all about. ... We tell them 'we've been there, we've been through everything you guys are going through and this is what it takes.' "

As Na Alii strive for their first football championship since winning the OIA White in 1992, the team also draws inspiration from the school's girls basketball team, which captured Aiea's first state crown last spring.

"A lot of the kids were at the games supporting the girls basketball team and they could feel the energy," Say said. "So we tell the kids, 'Your hard work can pay off, too, if you put in the effort.' "

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