POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 2, 2013
Mililani's thrilling playmakers come and go, but the unheralded defense always remains.
The Trojans have run a slew of playmakers out on offense in Rod York's three years at the helm, but talented players like Jarin Morikawa, Trent McKinney, DeShawn Duncan-Benson, Zachary Payomo and Hassan Richardson could only take the group so far. Mililani reached the state semifinals in two of the past three years only to find that its entertaining offense was not quite enough in the biggest games against the best teams. Mililani has been judged as just outside that group once again, coming in at No. 6 in the Star-Advertiser's preseason football poll.
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"Defense is everything for us," York said. "The offense gets the publicity, but defense and special teams are the reasons it all clicks, and when we win, most of the time it is because our defense stepped up."
The Trojans went into their 2010 semifinal against Waianae yielding 20.8 points per game but gave up 48 to the Seariders. They made it that far again last year, but a defense that had allowed 13.7 points per game before the OIA Championship surrendered 50 to Kahuku in that matchup and then 49 to Punahou in a state tournament loss. With seven players on defense returning, those big numbers have hung over the program all offseason.
For as great as the offense looks every year, only defensive end Dakota Turner was on the Star-Advertiser's All-State first team last year. Middle linebacker Dayton Furuta, who bailed out the offense at times as a running back and could go both ways again this year, is ready to step into Turner's shoes as the star on an often starless unit. Furuta was second-team All-State last year as a utility player.
"By the time he is done he will be recognized as the best linebacker in the state," York said.
A physical force who has drawn interest from UCLA, Furuta teams with Jacob Afele to help make up possibly the best pair of linebackers in the state. Furuta is among the best in the state in wrestling and judo, while Afele trains in MMA in his downtime and is "the rugged and respectful bull of the school," according to York. As good as they might be, the talented twosome needs big guys up front to clear the way. Juniors Rex Manu and Tamatoa Silva will engage blockers in front of Furuta, while Kaimana Padello is expected to bring the heat as a rush end.
Ian Namu started last year on the defensive line in front of Furuta and ended it behind him as a safety, and will anchor the defensive backfield along with cornerback Mata Leota, a transfer from 'Iolani.
McKenzie Milton and Robert Faleafine are waging a fierce battle for the right to replace Morikawa, and it is a contrast in styles that will determine what the offense looks like. Faleafine is the classic big man who can launch a ball 70 yards. Milton is York's athlete, able to hurt defenses with his legs as much as his arm.
No matter who wins the job, a majority of the duties are going to entail turning around and handing the ball off to a punishing running back. As York says, it is time to get back to old-school Mililani football, and he is going back to a slot-I offense to achieve it.
A sophomore transfer from Saint Louis School, Vae Malepeai is already Mililani's best running back, but he might spend some time in the slot because Pakelo Lee and Furuta are tough to bring down. Furuta was Mililani's only rusher to go over 100 yards in a game last year, with 118 in the Trojans' win over Baldwin in the first round of the state tournament.
The Trojans have a mess of talent lined up at receiver, with seniors Bronson Ramos, Larry Baquiran and Ryan Reedy leading the way. The seniors aren't going to be given anything, though, with Kala Timoteo and Kai Apana-Purcell pushing them. Bronson Ader, a senior from Campbell, and Kainoa Wilson are able slot receivers. It was a good year to switch the offensive scheme because the offensive line is largely new. Holden Young returns at guard, but Andru Tovi and Derrick Suapaia came in from Aiea, and Jordan Agasiva joined the group from Farrington.
With all of the returnees, Mililani's defense can't help but be better in the big games after a year of living with another big letdown. But the loss didn't linger as much as it would have with a lot of high school kids.
"It doesn't bother them too much," York says. "Our guys understand. They go hard, but they put it in perspective. No win is going to be the highlight of our life, and if it is, that would be sad. You always want to win, but it is more important to us that we win the right way."
Mililani's journey begins Aug. 9 at Moanalua, with a rematch against Punahou the following week before beginning play in the always wild OIA Red West.