Nodding toward a group of ‘Iolani seniors mingling before practice, Delbert Tengan summed up their value to the Raiders’ defense in terms fitness enthusiasts can wholly appreciate.
"You talk about core strength in your body. That’s the core strength of our defense," the Raiders’ defensive coordinator said. "Those three guys right there."
Linebackers Cody Petro-Sakuma and Matt Padaca form the hub of the ‘Iolani defense as playmakers in the scheme’s middle layer, their productivity heavily influenced by a line anchored by Addison Kogami, who made the uncommon move from safety to defensive tackle as a senior.
Their varsity careers have yielded two Division II state championships since their sophomore years. The quest for a third continues Saturday when ‘Iolani hosts Kauai at 2:30 p.m. at Kozuki Stadium in a rematch of last year’s D-II final.
Lahainaluna faces Kaimuki at War Memorial Stadium on Maui on Friday in the other D-II state tournament semifinal. The winners meet Nov. 26 at Aloha Stadium for the title.
"Our crew we have now has pretty much been together since seventh grade, so we all know each other a lot, and it’s helped us to move forward together and get through hard times together," Petro-Sakuma said. "The years we have together help us trust each other more, so it helps us play Raider football."
‘Iolani’s defense has spurred the top-seeded Raiders’ pursuit for the program’s fourth straight state championship with leadership from Petro-Sakuma, Padaca and Kogami. But all three are quick to reference the school’s "one team" philosophy and its emphasis on the whole over the individual.
"Nobody really looks to outshine anybody on our defense," Padaca said. "It doesn’t work if everyone’s out doing their own thing. We need to know everybody else has our backs."
Executing a scheme implemented by Tengan — the former head coach and longtime assistant at Saint Louis — the Raiders gave up 85.5 rushing yards per game, an average of 3.04 per carry, during the Interscholastic League of Honolulu season.
The defense surrendered a total of 35 points in ‘Iolani’s seven wins, which included a 13-6 victory over Kamehameha on Sept. 11.
"Delbert has adjusted the scheme to our personnel really well … and maximized their talents and strengths," head coach Wendell Look said. "I think our defense has been solid all year, and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in."
The Raiders’ effectiveness is dependent on moving as a unit to overcome the size disadvantage ‘Iolani typically faces at the line of scrimmage.
Kogami started at safety and weakside linebacker the past two years and, at 5 feet 11 and 215 pounds, he is now the Raiders’ biggest starter on the defensive front.
During the summer, the coaches mentioned the possibility of having him step in at tackle after the loss of Sealii Epenesa (6-2, 315) and Kaena Moose (6-1, 270) to graduation.
"He’ll play on the guard or on the center. For a guy his size, if they have to double team him that’s going to free up Petro or Padaca to make plays," Tengan said. "If they try to block those two guys, he’s the guy who has to make plays."
Kogami doesn’t view the move as a sacrifice, embracing the often-bruising challenge while learning a new set of fundamentals and techniques.
"When we played Mililani, that was my big wake-up call because their linemen were 300-plus and I really had to dig in," Kogami said, referencing an early-season loss to the Trojans, the top seed in the Division I tournament.
Kogami said he holds his ground against bigger opponents with "just straight up technique, keeping your base low and trying to fight through their strength."
Kogami said the Raiders’ seniors are striving to continue the tradition set by preceding classes while leaving a legacy for those to follow.
Along with their game-time experience, Look said the Raiders have leaned on the seniors to set the pace in practices leading into Saturday’s game. By the time kickoff arrives, it’ll be three weeks since they last played in a game.
"They’ve been through it, so they know how to prepare and use this off time to reenergize but still be focused and stay as sharp as possible," Look said.