Lunas’ senior class a special one
Tihada, Perez, Lai, Irish part of all four state title teams
HONOLULU — Of the 22 starting spots for the Lahainaluna High School football team on Friday in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division II state championship game, 13 were manned by seniors.
The Lunas (11-1) wrapped up their fourth straight state crown with a 21-10 win over Kapaa, but also waved goodbye to an influential senior class of 19.
Six 12th-graders started on offense, seven on defense — Nainoa Kulukulualani-Sales was listed as an official starter on both sides, at defensive back and running back.
Four of the decorated class — Joshua Tihada, Derek Perez, Tuipulotu Lai and Nainoa Irish — earned their fourth state championship ring on Saturday. Tihada and Perez were members of the Lunas’ varsity team since the first day of their freshman seasons, while Irish and Lai were added to the roster prior to the 2016 state tournament.
“Our kids just did what we needed to get the job done and we’re really, really proud of them,” Lahainaluna co-head coach Dean Rickard said.
Their presence will be missed. Tihada, Irish and Lai all have college football careers in mind, while Perez plans to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
Tihada accounted for 91.4 percent of the Lunas’ offensive yards Friday with a state tournament-record 310 yards and all three touchdowns in the championship game. He starts basketball practice soon and leaves the Lunas’ football team with 67 touchdowns scored in his career, 19 of them in nine state tournament games where he ran for 1,087 yards.
“He’s definitely going to be missed, that’s for sure,” Rickard said. “One of the greatest ever, how does that sound? Definitely very talented, I mean the stats speak for themselves.”
Irish started his career as a quarterback and was a starter for large portions of his sophomore and junior seasons before turning to linebacker this year.
“It really doesn’t matter, whatever benefits the team, wherever coaches put me, you know, I will just work my way there, get my fundamentals down,” Irish said. “From there, I just play my part, too.”
Irish, who plans to play at Pacific University in Oregon, had a front-row seat watching Tihada do his thing.
“Shoot, that kid is unbelievable,” Irish said. “I don’t know what to say about him. He’s so unbelievable. He’s humble, he’s respectful to all his coaches and teammates. He’s one of the people that everybody looks up to. He’s an unbelievable kid.”
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Lai has scholarship offers from BYU and Northern Colorado and has several other schools interested. He played on both lines in the state final but appears headed to the defense in college.
“It was just about playing for our people,” Lai said as he peered into the sun-soaked stands at Aloha Stadium splashed with red-and-black clad Luna fans. “I just wanted to play for my mom, my family, everybody else out there. It’s just about playing for the community and repping where we came from.”
The other senior starters included wide receiver Kai Bookland and Kaihulali Casco, both of whom appear to have college football futures. Casco finished with a team-high 10 tackles on Friday, while Bookland was mostly a blocker as the Lunas threw just two passes.
It’s definitely quite possible that the other Lunas’ seniors could all find a college football future — the other starters who played their last game on Friday included Kekailoa Cajudoy, Brysen Rickard, Matthew Rabino, Rylend Nobriga, Kaeo Pedroza-Kanemitsu and Brian Sandoval.
Juniors T.J. Galoia and Hookipa Sakalia, and sophomore Dylan Takahashi-Sagapolutele return as starters on the offensive line, while juniors Esekielu Storer and Treven Tihada return as starters at quarterback and running back, respectively.
On defense, juniors Devon Sa-Chisolm and Tre Rickard both return with super athleticism as defensive backs and kick returners; juniors Ekolu Mathias (DB) and Matai Mataafa (DL) are also slated to be back.
The Lunas always seem ready to adapt to the in-game situation. As the wildcat formation with Joshua Tihada taking snaps rolled to 93 yards on the ground in the first quarter, Lahainaluna stayed with the attack all game long on the way to 339 yards of offense, all on the ground.
In a 21-18 win over Kapaa in August, Storer was 9-for-12 passing for 145 yards, 65 of which went to Bookland. Eleven Lunas carried the ball that day for 97 yards. In the state final, neither of the two passes Storer threw were complete and six rushers carried the ball.
“We knew coming in we could go to the pass or we could go to our run game and as it turned out they (Kapaa) kind of prepared for our pass,” Dean Rickard said. “They went with the two top (safeties), so they forced to go into our running and it was working for us. If it was working we just said, ‘We might as well stick with it.’
“They weren’t really able to stop it and fortunately our guys up front, the hogs and the guys in the trenches, they did what they needed to do. They opened the lanes and Josh did the rest.”
Kapaa head coach Philip Rapozo saw his team lose for the fifth straight time to the Lunas, including state finals in 2016, 2018 and Friday.
“It seemed like nothing worked,” Rapozo said. “We tried to squeeze more and adjust little things. At first we were shooting the gaps, but we weren’t staying home, we were trying to get up field. That hurt us. That’s what happens when you play a good team.
“They beat us in the trenches. I think that was the difference in the game.”
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com.