The big shuffle and cut is happening in the OIA, whether it’s this week’s semifinals or next week’s third-place game.
But the end comes for one of two ILH powerhouses.
The OIA D-I tourney will have three qualifiers for the HHSAA championship. But just one will come out of the ILH, which has just three D-I football programs, all among the state’s Top 10 year in and year out.
No. 1 Punahou (6-0) and No. 3 Saint Louis (6-3) duke it out on Friday night at Aloha Stadium. For the loser, the season will be over.
Rankings and labels — like favorites — don’t enter coach Kale Ane’s mind.
"My mind-set is we don’t worry about the hype or anything. We’re preparing and doing our thing and try to do it well," the Punahou coach said.
The Buffanblu are quite mindful of Saint Louis’ dangerous threat at quarterback, sophomore Tua Tagovailoa. He received a scholarship offer from UCLA last week, then went out and led the Crusaders to a playoff win over Kamehameha.
"Their QB is a huge threat running the ball. We emphasize his ability to take a quick look, then take off. Our lineman and linebackers have that awareness. It’s fun to play against great QBs," Ane said.
Tagovailoa’s protectors up front are led by Fred Ulu-Perry, who has already committed to UCLA.
"I think the big programs like UCLA see something in him, and we do, too." Saint Louis coach Cal Lee said. "They’ve got to worry about our receivers. I like our running game much better (now), and Tua with his reads and running ability. For a defense, it’s a nightmare when that quarterback scrambles."
Saint Louis’ penchant for throwing the ball has yielded to balance.
"They ran really well against Kamehameha," Ane said. "Their line has done very, very well. They have a Division I tackle in Ulu-Perry. They have big kids who are athletic and impressive."
For Lee, the role of underdog against a giant like Punahou is worthy of embrace.
"This is like David and Goliath as far as what they did to us the first time. We’ve made so much more improvement. Hopefully, we can go out there and put up a good show," he said.
The current dominator, Punahou, is in for a red-hot series with Saint Louis in the next few seasons. The return of Lee to the Crusaders has already spiked the number of incoming transfers from the North Shore, student-athletes who will be eligible next fall.
"It’s always exciting to compete against the brothers, Cal and (Ron). They’ve really changed the whole landscape of high school football in Hawaii and they’re still doing that," Ane said.
Close as they are in the postseason and Top 10, there’s no question who the favorite is. Though Saint Louis has been winning of late, overwhelming Kamehameha 47-20 in last week’s semifinal/play-in game, Punahou has been in complete command since Day 1 of the preseason.
The table is being run by Punahou (6-0), a glorious conglomerate of born-and-bred K-through-12 lifers, North Shore talent, experienced coaches and, maybe most importantly, a commitment to be flexible.
Of course, having superior talent up front (Semisi Uluave), at QB (Ephraim Tuliloa), RB (Wayne Taulapapa) and WR (Kanawai Noa) doesn’t hurt. But the "chefs" on Punahou’s staff have been more than happy to use more than one recipe to produce winning results.
» 55-7 over Saint Louis, Aug. 29
» 52-6 over Damien, Sept. 5
» 56-0 over St. Francis, Sept. 13
» 59-22 over ‘Iolani, Sept. 26
» 68-0 over Pac-Five, Oct. 3
» 47-7 over Kamehameha, Oct. 10
No team on Oahu has played fewer games. None has had more down time. But the staff and players remain patient, keep grinding away every day at practice. It works, somehow, and even without a mainland opponent on the schedule, the Buffanblu are ranked No. 22 in the MaxPreps national rankings. They’re at No. 26 in the latest USA Today Super 25.
At their best, the Buffanblu have no real challenger in the islands. The proof is clear and evident. But on a bad night, with a few missteps, a mental error or two, who knows?
Saint Louis knows the results of basic mistakes well, and by fine-tuning and improving day by day, Lee’s team has become a juggernaut once again.
The sequel to the Lee brothers’ dynastic run of the 1980s and ’90s didn’t start off well. They inherited a brutal schedule that began with Mililani (a 63-47 loss), national power St. John Bosco of California (63-14 loss) and then, the ILH opener against Punahou.
Defending league and state champion Punahou was in midseason form with an early-season rout of the Crusaders. Punahou’s defense, led by defensive lineman Canton Kaumatule and linebackers Saitui Moea’i and Ronley Lakalaka, shut down the Crusaders in their August battle. Saint Louis had just 244 total yards.
All doubts about Saint Louis’ talented, but thin defensive unit proved true. For a defensive-minded Cal Lee, it was time to dig in. From the early Saint Louis years to UH to the Hawaiian Islanders AFL team, to Division II Kalani, Lee never failed to teach defensive fundamentals.
Nobody, however, has solved Punahou’s punishing attack.
The numbers by Punahou have been eye-popping, even in just six games.
» Tuliloa: In five games (he missed one due to illness), the 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior has completed 70 of his 96 attempts for 1,360 yards in seriously limited playing time (due to blowout games). He has 15 TD passes with just one pick. Efficiency? Try a 73 percent completion rate and a QB rating of 241.40.
» Taulapapa: The 5-11, 185-pound junior doesn’t play for stats, of course, but in just 61 rushing attempts, he has 694 yards and 15 TDs. He has spent roughly as much time on the sideline as he has on the actual playing field. All that down time has only fed his hunger. Very few backs in the state run with as much fury.
» Noa: Like great Punahou receivers before him (Robby Toma, Miah Ostrowski), Noa is a young man of few words who eschews personal attention and numbers. But without him, Punahou’s ability to stretch defenses downfield is nowhere near the same. At the next level, he’ll be a threat deep and on intermediate routes thanks to disciplined route running and sticky hands. The numbers anyway: 32 receptions, 787 yards, eight TDs. Plus two punt returns for TDs.
Saint Louis always has a puncher’s chance in any marquee showdown.
» Tagovailoa: The 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore, like Tuliloa, is a left-hander. Unlike Tuliloa, he has more leeway to take off. That has resulted in 549 rushing yards (7.3 per carry) and six TDs by ground, along with 2,237 passing yards, 30 TD passes with just three picks. His completion rate (71 percent) is second only to Tuliloa, as is his QBR (213.15).
» Jahred Silofau: He was a non-factor in their first four games, a sophomore working with the rest of the RB group. Since then, he has been a force: 101 rushing yards an a TD against ‘Iolani, 152 yards and TD against Kamehameha, and 181 yards in the rematch with the Warriors. Even with that, his workload has been light. Before the playoff game, he had 10 total carries in wins over St. Francis and Damien. For the season, Silofau has just 68 carries (for 527 yards and five TDs).
The Saints’ receiving corps has been put to work on a wide scale rather than a focus on just one receiver. Deep threat Drew Kobayashi has relatively modest numbers (24 receptions, 516 yards, eight TDs), but his speed and height (6-2) help create openings on receiver-read routes underneath.
Veteran receiver Allan Cui suffered a leg injury last week and is out.
"I think it’s serious," Lee said. "He was blocking on the play, he got hit. It’s unfortunate. He’s a great kid."
The Crusaders still have capable hands in Riccardo Sallas II, Cash Searle and Keanu Souza — arguably the deepest group of pass catchers, on par with Mililani.
OIA D-I SEMIFINALS
No. 6 Campbell (7-2) vs. No. 2 Mililani (9-0), Aloha Stadium
This OIA D-I semifinal is the first game of a doubleheader. When the Sabers and Trojans met on Sept. 19 at Campbell, it was a tight game until the second half, when Mililani rallied from a 22-15 deficit for a 57-28 victory. The backbreaker was a 74-yard TD run by Mililani QB McKenzie Milton.
Campbell’s defense is loaded with stud LBs and one of the state’s top safeties (Solomon Matautia), but Mililani made them look mortal that night.
This OIA D-I semifinal game is a happy place to be. The winner advances to the final, while the loser gets a second life in next week’s third-place — and state-tourney qualifying — game.
No. 5 Kahuku (7-1) vs. No. 4 Farrington (7-1), Aloha Stadium
Once division rivals, these two programs have struggled at times to balance their offenses. Kahuku has lost some talent from the North Shore via transfer. Farrington has been among the top 90 percentile for decades, but the lack of a consistent passing game has been a key to downfalls in the postseason.
The Govs have senior QB Montana Liana to lean on if and when Kahuku brings the heat against RBs Ranan Mamiya (830 yards, 14 TDs) and Challen Faamatau (490 yards, seven TDs).
Kahuku has righted the ship since a stunning loss at Kaiser with wins over Leilehua, Waianae and Kapolei. Even when there are mistakes, the Red Raiders have learned to overcome. QB Tuli Wily-Matagi ran the ball a season-high 16 times for 87 yards and a TD last week in a 9-0 playoff win over Kapolei.
Kahuku probably can’t afford to turn the ball over five times again, though, even with a defense that is playing its best football of the season.
ILH / OIA D-II PLAYOFFS
Damien (4-4) vs. ‘Iolani (5-3), Aloha Stadium
The ILH D-II championship has been owned by the Raiders since forever, it seems. Damien played in the first D-II state title game, losing to Aiea 9-7 in 2003. Since then, ‘Iolani has played in seven of the last 10 D-II state-championship games, winning seven crowns.
The Raiders beat the Monarchs 37-14 on Aug. 29 at Eddie Hamada Field, though it was a 17-14 game at the half. K.J. Pascua rushed for 132 yards and a TD in that game to spark ‘Iolani. Speedy WR Keoni-Kordell Makekau put his right foot to good use, drilling three field goals.
Damien has developed since then with RB Samson Low and QB Dallas Labanon making big progress. Low has churned out 259 yards in his last three games, including 177 yards and three TDs in last week’s playoff win over Pac-Five. Labanon has been on fire, hurling nine TD passes in the last three games. That includes a four-TD effort in a loss to Saint Louis.
Radford (6-3) at Pearl City (7-1)
This is an OIA playoff game with full consequences. The winner advances to the D-II final. The loser is done for the year. The Rams lost to the Chargers 34-26 on Sept. 20, but QB Andrew Morgan has ramped up his game since. Morgan has thrown for 1,030 yards and 14 TDs with just three picks, and versatile Chance Cacatian (652 yards, seven TDs from scrimmage) has been a key part of a balanced offense.
Justin Lugo (40 catches, 390 yards, two TDs) and Thomas Reid (30-538-6) have become mainstays.
Pearl City has been more efficient lately. Jordan Taamu has thrown just 31 passes combined in the last two games, but he has accounted for five TD passes and two more TDs by ground. For the year, 19.7 percent of his completions have gone for TDs, but in the recent wins over Kalani and Kalaheo, that rate is over 26 percent.
Much of that is due to Dominic Maneafaiga, one of the state’s most dynamic playmakers. The senior has 897 yards and 15 TDs from scrimmage, plus two punt returns and one kick return for touchdowns.
Kalani (4-4) at Nanakuli (8-0)
The beauty of finishing first (or second) in OIA D-II is earning that host role for the playoffs. A win over the Falcons means Nanakuli can reach the final and clinch a state-tournament berth.
It’s unlikely this will be easy, though. The Golden Hawks saw a massive lead shrink to just six points in a 48-35 win over Kalani two weeks ago to close the regular season. Coach Keala Watson has offensive producers in QB Kale Kanehailua (1,236 passing yards, 359 rushing yards, 19 total TDs) and RB Makaila Haina-Horswill (1,083 rushing yards, 13 TDs), and the past two weeks of practice probably sharpened their killer instinct.
Nanakuli’s defense will be in gang-tackle mode against Kalani RB Ace Faumui, who rumbled for 280 yards on 32 carries when they met. Faumui has 869 yards and 11 TDs in six games. The only team to limit Faumui to less than 100 yards: Radford.