POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 29, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 4:43 p.m. HST, Aug 6, 2013
The evolution of Lahainaluna football is underway.
On the surface, the ancient yet effective wing-T offense with its fly man in motion and multiple misdirections appears no different from what a Bobby Watson-coached team has done for decades. But co-head coach Garrett Tihada's willingness to expand and stretch the offense has melded with the development of slinger Sione Filikitonga-Lukela Jr.
With Filikitonga — a former JV signal-caller who made a big start in the state tourney against ‘Iolani — at the helm in an offense that is still run-first in mentality, the Lunas have advanced into the age of old school-meets-new school. With pistol formations and misdirection schemes now fashionable in the college and pro ranks, Chihara has the element that could finally take Lahainaluna to the top.
The Lunas were extremely close last year, losing to perennial Division II champion ‘Iolani in the state final, 36-33. They did it despite a lingering injury to versatile Kiko Kohler-Fonohema, who didn't play his usual number of snaps in the final.
But after last year's dominance through most of the schedule, the Lunas return almost every starter, including defensive end Hercules Mata‘afa. That makes an MIL title — the overall crown regardless of classification — well within their grasp.
"I feel like our team is one family. We grew up with each other and we want to win the state title. Our first priority is to win our first couple games before we look ahead," Mata‘afa said.
He was too quick off the ball for most foes, an explosive penetrator with range. Oregon State, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico State have offered scholarships.
"I'm going to take my recruiting visits before I make a decision," he said. "I want to explore."
For now, the sting of last year's loss to ‘Iolani has faded, and the hunger has grown.
"We didn't face a team that passed on us as much as them," said Mata‘afa, an All-State second-team selection last season. "So we were kind of shocked. But in the end, we finished strong. We've got a lot of experience on the squad, and that'll help with the newbies coming up."
With veteran leadership, the Lunas open the season at No. 10 in the Star-Advertiser Preseason Football Top 10. In other words, there's plenty room to move up.
Though versatile Tytus Lucas and Semisi Filikitonga — Sione's cousin — graduated, most of the pieces to that multi-layered offense are in place, and with Filikitonga's arm, Lahainaluna could and should exceed last year's shredding of MIL foes. They were 7-1 in league play (9-2 overall), outscoring opponents 215-3 in the first seven games. That included a 32-0 rout of MIL D-I powerhouse Baldwin.
Then came an overtime loss to those same Bears, followed by a 31-0 win over Maui and a 28-0 triumph over Nanakuli in the state tourney. Even with the loss to ‘Iolani, coaches and media voted the Lunas No. 9 in the final Top 10 of 2012.
"Almost all our starters are back. We're not really talking about state yet. We're just focusing on MIL, finishing first overall," Mata‘afa said.
With Baldwin undergoing a change at the top, there doesn't seem to be another MIL program as cohesive, as disciplined, as unified and as flexible.
"We don't even think about (Baldwin's situation). We just work on our own team," said Mata‘afa, who will line up as a stand-up pass rusher at times. "Doesn't really matter to me. I just like chasing quarterbacks."
In fact, there might not be another D-II program statewide as prepared to take a title. ‘Iolani lost key components, including elite quarterback Reece Foy and wide receiver Tanner Nishioka, to graduation. Kauai was formidable last year, but lost to Radford in the state tourney and will again have to battle a solid Kapaa squad for the KIF title.
Konawaena fielded its best squad in years, but was knocked out by Nanakuli in the state quarterfinals.
The D-II championship should be Lahainaluna's for the taking … unless Kaiser rises up and plays to its potential. Then it could be as close — and dramatic — as last year's finish.
Mata‘afa expects a great deal from his team, especially junior playmaker Jared Rocha-Islas.
"He's been playing good all offseason, lifting and he's running the ball good lately," Mata‘afa said.
But balance on offense is something that could take the Lunas to the next level.
"We have the weapons to pass the ball because of Sione's accuracy," Mata‘afa added.
The Lunas normally rely on a handful of stud players to carry the load on both sides of the ball. Since they don't like to give a running back all the carries — they spread the ball around to multiple ballcarriers — they can withstand injuries better than most teams. But there's only one Mata‘afa, and keeping him healthy against double-teaming blockers week after week will be a challenge.