It was a fair and balanced fight for quite a while up on the North Shore on Friday night.
That is until the Kahuku defense took control in the third quarter. In the end, the top-ranked Red Raiders and their sea of faithful fans happily secured a 29-17 victory over Mililani for the OIA Open regular season title.
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The turning point can be easily pinpointed, so look for it if you happen to watch the Spectrum OC-16 rebroadcast.
With 2:40 left in the third quarter and the Red Raiders holding a slim four-point lead, that singular moment came when defensive back Aiden Manutai —with teammates backing him up in case he missed — jumped a short Mililani passing route by Onosai Salanoa. The throw by Treston McMillan looked like it was going right into the breadbasket of Salanoa, but instead, Manutai came streaking in to grab control for the interception at the Trojans’ 20 as both players wrapped their arms around the ball.
“It (the possibility of jumping the short route) was there all night for us,” Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho said. “We finally executed and that’s the adjustments our defensive coaches made in the second half.”
Ironically, Manutai, a sophomore and the son of former University defensive back Lincoln Manutai, played his freshman year for the Trojans.
After that, the Kahuku torrent began and Mililani did not have an answer. Four plays later, running back Vaaimalae Fonoti — who rushed for 105 yards on the night — was in the end zone with an 8-yard TD run for a 19-9 edge. The Red Raiders (8-2, 6-0) never trailed again.
Two more ultra consequential plays, one on defense and one on special teams, helped the tide to stay on Kahuku’s side the rest of the way.
On Mililani’s next set of downs, Kahuku safety Brock Fonoimoana leaped to grab McMillan’s overthrown deep pass and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown and a huge 26-9 edge.
“I felt that we controlled the ball, controlled the tempo of the game, kept their offense at bay,” Carvalho said. “They (the Trojans) made completions and made plays. They did what they do. They have great atheltes. We just had to keep them in front of us. In the second half, our defense woke up and played lights out.”
Freshman Madden Soliai was the next to step up big-time for the Red Raiders, blocking a punt that led to Zaden Mariteragi’s 26-yard field goal.
“This was a big win for our seniors,” Soliai said. “We want to continue this momentum, especially with the home field advantage. This is very big for us.”
Yes indeed. In the OIA Open semifinals next weekend, Kahuku will host Kapolei (6-3, 3-3), and Mililani (6-3, 5-1) plays at home against Campbell (6-2, 4-2). Whoever comes out on top there clinches a spot in the state tournament.
Aside from F0noti’s 100-yard-plus rushing game, Kahuku quarterback Waika Crawford passed for 164 yards and a TD and made a handful of tough first down runs to keep the chains moving while picking up 64 yards on the ground.
\As happens often when rivals meet, Mililani did not go down easy. Raymond Roller returned a punt down the right sideline 66 yards for a touchdown and then he added the 2-point conversion with a run around right end for the 29-17 final.
“We were down by a lot, and (the punt return TD) was a good way to show that we’re still kind of in this and we still have some unfinished business,” Roller said. “Mistakes killed us today. We gotta fix that. If we clean up our mistakes and play them again, it’s going to be a good one.”
Added McMillan, “Next time, we’re going to be way more prepared.”
Trojans coach Rod York summed up his thoughts nicely.
“Credit Kahuku and that defense, whoooo,” he exclaimed. “And that physical O-line and running backs. They ran the ball well and our defense played good, but the turnovers turned into points for them and that hurt us.”
York also pinpointed what went wrong on the two interceptions.
“On the first one, we ran a hitch route and it was supposed to be in an ‘in’ route,” he said, “The second one, the guy was open and he overthrew it.”
Never one to get emotionally down after a close loss, York looked to the future, saying, “We’re gonna get better and come back. We gotta fight our way back.”
And then he raised his voice more than a few decibels with a huge smile and said with gusto, “That’s what it’s all about.”
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