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A Pivotal Decision To Stay Home By Eventual Bedrock Sports Hawaii Players Of The Year Kainoa Carvalho And Liona Lefau Lit The Fire To Kahuku’s Astounding State Championship Season

A pact forged by familial and brotherly love was the first real step Kahuku took on its upward arc to the 2021 Open Division football state championship.

Without that gentlemanly agreement between relatives and the best of friends, the road in this extra-special Red Raiders season would have been extra difficult.

Kahuku’s Kainoa Carvalho, Sterling Carvalho and Liona Lefau, Bedrock Sports Hawaii’s Offensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year. (All photos: Elijah Abramo / Bedrock Sports Hawaii).

And it’s certainly a major point of interest that the three main characters from that offseason decision — receiver Kainoa Carvalho, linebacker Liona Lefau and head coach Sterling Carvalho — had the biggest impacts on the eventual state championship, Kahuku’s ninth overall and first since 2015.

Kainoa Carvalho, a junior, is Bedrock Sports Hawaii’s choice as Offensive Player of the Year. Lefau, also a junior, is the Defensive Player of the Year.

Coach Carvalho, the pick as Coach of the Year, told Bedrock Sports Hawaii about that truly pivotal moment — which came soon after the Oahu Interscholastic Association delayed the start of the season from early August to mid-September and thereby leaving all Hawaii players unsure if there would even be a season here due to COVID-19 — saying:

“Kai-Kai (his nephew, Kainoa) was going to leave in a few hours to go to Skyridge (High School) in Utah (where he played as a sophomore in 2020, when Hawaii had no season) and it was just matter of him and some others from our Kahuku team to re-enroll there. He was heading to the airport. We would not have had this magical season if he went. I would have lost him and my twin brother (Kahuku assistant Stewart Carvalho) and Mana (Kai-Kai’s twin brother, another receiver) in just a few hours. They had their plane tickets.”

But Sterling had a heart-to-heart conversation with Kai-Kai.

“I said to him, ‘I’ve been coaching 20 years. This is the first time I’m coaching my actual true blood.’ And he made that decision to stay. He said, ‘Uncle, I’m going to stay.’ ”

That choice by Kai-Kai stopped the dominoes from falling.

“If he had gone, Liona would have gone (back to Sammamish High in Washington), (linebacker) Leonard (Ah You) would have gone,” the coach said. “There were a lot of players on the fence thinking about going.”

That family conversation was the same day as a team meeting, where Carvalho, Lefau and other players chose to wait it out and pray for a Hawaii season to happen.

“I had been thinking hard about it,” Kai-Kai said. “I was with Liona and Leonard, two of my closest friends and some other boys in the hours leading up to the flight. They were showing me so much love and I prayed about it, too, to the heavenly father. He told me to stay so I followed my heart and trusted my gut and stuck it out. I felt like I needed to stay. I saw how close our team had been coming together. We bonded together, we trained together. We’re all super close now. But even coming in, we knew we had something special already.”

Kainoa Carvalho and Liona Lefau.

Coach Carvalho understood the players’ real dilemma, that they did not want to be left with no season at all.

“They made a pact that night: ‘You stay, I stay, we are going to all stay together,’ ” he said.  “That’s what made this season so special.”

After some early season blowout wins, Kahuku gave fans a glimpse of things to come in the second half of a game against Mililani, when the Red Raiders pulled away from a late second-quarter 6-6 tie to a 55-20 victory.

The tide in that one began to turn when Lefau, who doubles as a receiver on offense, scored on a short pass to make it 13-6. Lefau also made a gigantic play on offense in the OIA championship game against Mililani, dragging three defenders about 10 yards on his back into the end zone for the winning 21-14 margin.

But Lefau’s biggest role was on the defensive side, where he is a super hard hitter who can cover a ton of ground to help the pass defense. Often early in games, he would make the first audible hit on an opposing running back to set the tone.

“Talk about the definition of versatility, he’s that guy,” Sterling Carvalho said. “He can hit, he can go into coverage, he can play offense, he can block, he can catch the ball. He can do everything. That’s why he’s special.”

College coaches think the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Lefau is going to be a great player at the next level, too. Even though he has one more year remaining at Kahuku, he is the owner of 17 Division I FBS scholarship offers. His two most recent offers are from the collegiate elite — USC and Oklahoma.

“He plays so smooth, it looks effortless at times” the coach continued. “He’s coming in and you’re thinking there’s no way he can deliver that blow, but boom, that blow was just delivered. Smooth.”

Kainoa Carvaho packs a lot of athletic ability and football skill into his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame.

“With Kai-Kai, he just works hard,” uncle Sterling said. “He works for everything he gets. He’s not the biggest guy. Actually, he’s  the shortest on our team, but he just plays with that chip that regardless of size, ‘I’m going to show you how big my heart is.’ And he just gets out there. He’s dynamic. He’s electric, It’s unreal. And he does it with a smile.”

And a peace sign.

After scoring a TD in the regular-season game against Mililani, Kai-Kai was hit with a 15-yard penalty for celebrating by giving the peace sign. He got more than an earful from the coach on that one and was never caught celebrating again.

Kai-Kai was also an ultra-accurate place-kicker and a dangerous kick returner all season.

“The first game against Kapolei, we go down and we had some missed passes, some missed open receivers,” coach Carvalho said. “Kapolei comes down and scores. We’re down 7-0. But the very next kickoff, everybody got to see how explosive and electric Kai-Kai is. He took that thing to the house. He came to the side, cut to the middle, saw a crease and just shot through that crease.”

Kahuku did not trail again until going down 14-0 in the OIA title game to the Trojans. Kai-Kai started the comeback in that one, zigging and zagging on a screen pass for a 46-yard score.

“I didn’t realize until after that it was third down and 17,” Kai-Kai said.

“I was trying to get half (of the 17 yards),” coach Carvalho admitted.

The coach also remembers Lefau making a huge difference defensively in the early going the first time the Red Raiders played Mililani.

“That hit he made on (Nehemiah) Timoteo,” he said. “The biggest back in the state that we faced and Liona just stonewalled him.”

Lefau said he’s not sure when he’ll decide where to play in college, but that it could be before or during next season.

“I’m just really happy that we could send out the seniors in the right way,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot, missing their junior season. A lot of them stayed around waiting for us. I guess the least I could do to show my love for them was to just wait it out and if we didn’t have a season, then get ready for the next one. Luckily we got to have a season. Since we’ve been working for a while now, coming into this season, it all just started to click. We had that bond as brothers and everything was working.”

In early January, Carvalho, who finished with 1,023 receiving yards and 16 overall TDs, received his first FBS D-I scholarship offer — from Utah. He added another clutch game in the 49-14 Open state final victory over Saint Louis to put the finishing touches on a 10-0 season by catching 10 passes for 135 yards and two TDs.

Bedrock Sports asked the two players of the year to size up the other:

>> Liona on Kai-Kai: “He’s the definition of hard work and heart, and if you really put your heart and mind to something, you can get it done. He showed that he can ball the whole season. He proved that he was the best player, the most electric player in the state and now he has those accolades to support that statement.”

>> Kai-Kai on Liona: “He’s just a monster. High IQ. Fast, physical. He can do it all, honestly.”

Coach Sterling Carvalho and the state championship flag.

While Liona and Kai-Kai are expected to be consensus (among various media outlets) picks as the offensive and defensive players of the year, Sterling beat out some worthy coach of the year candidates, including Kapaa’s Mike Tresler, ‘Iolani’s Wendell Look, Aiea’s Wendell Say, Kamehameha’s Abu Maafala, Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s Kaluka Maiava, Kaiser’s Tim Seaman and Kamehameha-Maui’s Ulima Afoa

Kahuku’s 2021 season
>> Oct. 15: No. 5 Kahuku 41, at Kapolei 7 (
>> Oct. 29: No. 4 Kahuku 75, at Farrington 6 (
>> Oct. 30: No. 4 Kahuku 55, at Leilehua 0 (
>> Nov. 6: No. 4 Kahuku 50, at Waianae 7 (
>> Nov. 13:  No. 3 Kahuku 55, at No. 2 Mililani 20 (
>> Nov. 27: No. 1 Kahuku 49, at No. 5 Campbell 23 (
>> Dec. 4: No. 1 Kahuku 33, Waianae 7, at Farrington High field (
>> Dec. 10: OIA championship —  No. 1 Kahuku 21, No. 3 Mililani 14, at Leilehua High field (
>> Dec. 18: State Open semifinal — No. 1 Kahuku 52, No. 5 Campbell 0 (
>> Dec. 23: State Open championship game — No. 1 Kahuku 49, No. 2 Saint Louis 14 (

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