LAHAINA – In a game that arrives a week earlier than many folks thought it should, the top-seeded Lahainaluna High School football team knows it will have its hands full when it meets fourth-seeded Kaiser on Saturday at 6 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium in the First Hawaiian Bank Division II state semifinals.
“They are big, strong, fast,” Lahainaluna co-head coach Garret Tihada said of the 11-1 Cougars, who outscored 10 opponents 496-104 and had two forfeit wins. “They are the real deal. It is hard to find a weakness in them right now. They have just been killing everybody, which just shows what kind of good team they are. . . . We haven’t faced anybody like Kaiser.”
Lahainaluna seniors Bronson Kaina, a 5-foot-7, 210-pound linebacker, and Kiko Kohler-Fonohema, a 6-0, 195-pound safety, will be used on both sides of the ball.
Defense, however, will be the focus for both.
The Cougars are coming off a 59-6 win over Konawaena in last week’s quarterfinals. They feature fullback Fitou Fisiiahi, who has rushed for 688 yards this season, and tailback Thomas Boutenbah-Leong, who has 650 yards on the ground. Each has 16 rushing touchdowns.
“Just going over film, just play assignment football,” Kaina said before Tuesday’s practice. “They have got two big running backs, but some running backs have got to have weaknesses, too. Everybody has weaknesses. We just have to do disciplined tackling, gang tackling, make sure everyone meets at the ball, be there as a team.”
Kaiser has won 11 in a row after a 21-7 season-opening loss to Campbell, which will play in the D-I final four on Friday. Lahainaluna is 10-0 for the first time in school history and outscored Maui Interscholastic League opponents 336-44.
The Lunas’ defense, which gave up just 130.4 yards per game against the MIL, has had numerous opportunities to practice against its own offense in preparation for the Cougars’ rushing attack.
Of Lahainaluna’s 3,197 yards of offense in MIL play, 86.1 percent has come on the ground. Jared Rocha-Islas led the league with 814 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 12.7 yards per carry. Quarterback Makoa Filikitonga was third in the MIL with 789 yards rushing, eight touchdowns and 10.7 yards per carry. Christian Whitehead was fourth in the league with 553 yards and nine scores and a 6.8-yard average.
“Our offense, they come hard, they explode off the ball and coming against these linemen that we have is a good thing for me because seeing people who are large – the other linebackers, too, and even the DBs – coming against big guys is good because you have to do different things,” Kaina said. “It has been good for us.”
The Lunas haven’t played since their 42-14 win over Maui High on Oct. 25.
“We just took these three weeks of preparation, did what the coaches said, they taught us a lot, we watched film on (Kaiser) – they look really good,” Kohler-Fonohema said. “Both of their running backs are super-good athletes. One is pretty big (Fisiiahi is 6-0, 235), but we just have to do our jobs.”
Tihada said it will be basics learned over the last year that will be key to slowing down the Cougars.
“Our defense is based on discipline, gang tackling, assignment football,” he said. “If our kids do that well like they have been all year, we will be all right.”
Even with an offense that averaged 399.6 yards per game, Kohler-Fonohema said, “We take a lot of pride (on defense). Our coaches teach us a lot and we don’t want to let them down.”
Kohler-Fonohema said this game should live up to the hype.
“We feel like this is the game of the year,” he said. “They are a pretty good team, we match up evenly size-wise, speed-wise, player by player on both sides of the ball, so it is going to be a good game.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will face the Kauai-Iolani winner for the title at Aloha Stadium on Nov. 23.
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org