Koa Ka’ai dealt with double-team blocking and Leilehua ran most of its plays to the other side. Still, the Kamehameha defensive end managed three tackles for losses as the defending state champion Warriors won 21-7.
But what I’ll take away from his performance Saturday is a cool-headed response – or, rather, lack of response – to a post-whistle shove from a Mules player in the second half.
Instead of retaliating with a push of his own, the 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound senior took a step back and raised his arms. This was not in surrender, but to clearly show any observing zebras that he did not deserve a personal foul.
Ka’ai knows the negative arising from that could be much more than a 15-yard penalty.
"Now that I’m a leader and a captain, I can’t be dumb out there," he said. "If I did something, some of my teammates might do the same thing."
It would be irresponsible.
And Kamehameha’s defense – in philosophy and scheme – is all about responsibility. In another type of operation, Ka’ai might be allowed to roam free and make more big plays. But that might not translate into Warriors victories.
Last year, state player of the year Beau Yap was at the other end, precluding extra attention for Ka’ai.
That’s how it was for Kamehameha’s entire team last year. Its 2009 state championship was won on balance as much as talent.
"Yeah, it does get frustrating sometimes. College coaches tell me go out and make as many plays as I can, but our defense is based on assignments," he said. "I’m just going to have to learn to deal with it as the season goes along."
Former University of Hawaii defensive lineman Houston Ala coaches the Kamehameha defensive ends. He reminds Ka’ai that he contributes mightily by taking up additional blockers, or cutting the field in half.
"He told me the same thing happened to him his senior year because he had a good junior year," Ka’ai said.
Ka’ai didn’t get a sack against Leilehua, but teammates Maka Pickard and Kory Rasmussen did as Kamehameha yielded only 126 yards in improving to 2-0.
"I don’t think anyone’s going to give him a chance to dominate," said Star-Advertiser ace preps reporter Paul Honda, who was at the game. "Everybody knows about him. Nobody’s going to run to his side, and he’s not going to get 20 sacks. But the other guys are going to make plays."
RECRUITERS LOVE his other stats: Ka’ai, who is interested in U.S. history and ocean studies, tested to the tune of 1,720 on the SAT and carries a 3.6 GPA. Demeanor and technique are other plusses, said Kamehameha head coach David Stant. "Great kid, and he has great handwork and plays with consistent low pad level."
Ka’ai estimates he has a thousand pieces of correspondence from colleges. He tried to arrange them in binders, but that quickly became unfeasible and now they overflow several boxes.
He’s received a dozen football scholarship offers, including from Oklahoma and most of the Pac-10. Ka’ai said yesterday he hasn’t narrowed things down yet and doesn’t want to name a leader. But he is set for his first visit: Oregon on Sept. 18.
"It’s a fun process," Ka’ai said. "Sometimes I feel like I’m in over my head. But at the end of the day it’s a once in a lifetime experience most other people don’t get to go through."
He said he might follow in the cleatsteps of his father. Bill Ka’ai was a UH lineman.
"Right now, I have to say, yes, Hawaii is in the running. My parents both went to UH. Every school has its good points. For example, Stanford and Cal have great academics, and I really like the atmosphere at Colorado. Hawaii is home and that’s one thing the other schools will never have."
I don’t doubt his sincerity, but the state’s top high school football talent usually ends up headed to the continent.
But maybe this is a good sign for UH: In Kamehameha’s defensive scheme, Koa Ka’ai has learned the wise thing to do is often staying home.