There is history and there is relationship.
The four years of Baldwin vs. Leilehua — 2007-10 — were unusual, for sure. After beating the Bears in the semifinals at Aloha Stadium in 2007, Leilehua hit the airport the next three years and flew to Maui. Each year, the Mules returned home triumphantly.
In ’09, a playmaker named Kaimana Akagi stepped up and hauled in three touchdown passes from Andrew Manley, who finished with five TDs in all. Leilehua ousted Baldwin 48-12 that night. The ball boy for Leilehua was Kaimana’s younger brother, Kalei. Fast-forward a decade, and Kalei Akagi is now a multiple-position playmaker for the Mules.
Leilehua (9-2) visits War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku again today, kicking off the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships in Division I. Baldwin (5-4) has not played in the state tourney since 2016, and last won a state-tourney game in ’11.
Tonight’s winner will meet Hilo at Dr. Francis Wong Stadium in a semifinal game on Nov. 23.
This matchup marks the first meeting between the programs since 2010. Baldwin is coached by Pohai Lee, who recruited a number of Leilehua players while coaching under his father, Tommy, at Montana Western.
“One of my aspirations was to coach with my dad before he retired,” Lee said. “That was his last stop and we had four years together. The values he established never wavered.”
Lee was a regular visitor to Wahiawa, building a pipeline of sorts through former Mules coach and current athletics director Nolan Tokuda and his staff, including then-assistant coach Mark Kurisu, the current head coach of the Mules.
“I’d come by Leilehua and we would talk,” Lee said. “Mark, I knew more when I was at McKinley and we would scrimmage with them.”
Baldwin is 5-4 this season, including a 5-3 mark in the Maui Interscholastic League.
“We’re on the upswing,” said Lee, who arrived at Baldwin in 2016 to coach and teach health and physical education. “There’s not one member of the team that has been in this experience. The last time we were here was ’16.”
Lee’s spread offense generated nearly 24 points per game in MIL action, and the stingy Bears defense permitted less than 18 per game — the second-lowest average in the league.
Two of Baldwin’s losses were against the MIL’s dynastic program, Lahainaluna. The other defeats came at the hands of Kamehameha-Maui and Edison (Calif.). Qualifying for the Division I state tourney wasn’t difficult for the Bears. The only other team in MIL D-I was Maui (1-8).
Kurisu was the defensive coordinator under Tokuda and was an interim head coach for one season. He became head coach in 2016 and has one of the highest win-loss percentages (33-10-1, .761) among active coaches.
Leilehua’s running game is deep, with Damarion Smith and Jemell Vereen leading the way. Smith (307 yards) began the season as the primary rusher. Vereen was promoted from the JV and has added a boost with 621 yards and four touchdowns.
Kekoa Turangan and his swift receivers have benefited. Turangan (1,594 passing yards) has thrown 21 TD passes with just nine picks. Jayzon Ramos (48 receptions, 836 yards, 11 TDs) and QB/WR Kalei Akagi (45, 552, four) lead a deep pass-catching corps.
The Mules’ balanced offense complements a disciplined, unpredictable defense that sometimes flashes stand-up linemen and linebackers without a single hand in the turf.
Baldwin has a history of wide-open offense going back to the Chad Kauhaahaa era, but Lee has worked with his personnel, too. Quarterback Laa Asuega-Stark, a track athlete, has passed for 1,071 yards and 11 TDs. He has also scored four TDs on the ground, but has just 89 rushing yards.
“To me, he’s a dual athlete. This year, he should’ve pulled the ball more (on the read option),” Lee said. “We’ve talked about it. We want the defense to defend him, as well. For some reason, he’s more like a pocket passer this year, but given our opportunities to run, he could’ve run for more.”
The Bears will go four or five wide, but also like an “ace” formation featuring two tight ends. RB/DB Isaiah Souza has a team-high 359 yards and two TDs.
Baldwin has invested a lot of game planning into their core of two-way iron men, including most of their line. Mafatini “Mane” Mafatini is a natural tight end at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds. He made the move to left tackle to fill one of Baldwin’s biggest needs, perhaps the biggest.
“We need his size and athleticism. I think if he continues to train in the offseason, get stronger and quicker, he’ll get some (college) looks at defensive end or tight end,” Lee said.
Maake Panuve (6-0, 230) starts at left guard. Along with right guard Nephi Laga (5-11, 233), the Bears have two active, quick blockers on the move.
“Maake is a wrestler and he’s smart,” Lee said, noting Panuve’s 4.0 grade-point average. “Nephi wanted to run and catch the ball. He’s a rugby guy, but our biggest need for him is at guard.”
Solomone Tuiahe (6-0, 260) and Jayden Kalehuawehe-Cabebe (6-1, 251) share duties at right tackle.
Center Chathan Foster (5-10, 200) is an anomaly. He spent most of his prep career at linebacker and defensive end. He hadn’t played center since his days with the Wailuku Bears youth team.
“This is what makes our team very special. They’re willing to do what it takes to win games. A lot of guys go two ways and they’ve responded very well,” Lee said.
Cornerback Jedidiah Nerpio (5-9, 160) is another reliable Bear.
“I love his heart. He plays the game with no fear and no matter how tall the receiver is, he’s going to challenge him,” Lee said. “Doesn’t say much, doesn’t need to. He just plays all-out all the time.”
LEILEHUA MULES (9-2) VS. BALDWIN BEARS (5-4)
>> Where: War Memorial Stadium
>> When: Today, 5:30 p.m.
>> TV: Spectrum OC-16
>> Series history: Leilehua has won all four games against Baldwin in the state tournament (41-34 in 2007 semis; 34-15 in 2008 first round; 48-12 in 2009 first round; 35-26 in 2010 first round).