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Lunas back, and as versatile as ever

Quest for another MIL title, trip back to D-I state championship begins Saturday vs. Sabers

Lahainaluna High School players sprint while participating in a speed and quickness session during a practice earlier this month at Sue Cooley Stadium. The Lunas, who have won 31 straight MIL games, open league play Saturday against Maui High at Cooley Stadium. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

LAHAINA — The Lahainaluna High School football team seeks out challenges that few others do in the 50th state.

The Lunas became the first Maui Interscholastic League team ever to move up a division when they went from Division II to Division I in 2020.

They had to wait a season to actually get to D-I due to the pandemic, but upon arrival they advanced to the 2021 state championship game, riding an 18-game overall winning streak and 10-game winning streak in state tournaments.

The magic of being the first MIL team to reach a D-I state final evaporated quickly in a 38-0 loss to old nemesis Iolani, but the Lunas jumped quickly back into the fray this fall by scheduling a preseason trip to take on Hilo, the D-I state champion in 2017 and 2019 and runner-up in 2018.

The final score Saturday night at Wong Stadium: Lunas 28, Vikings 20.

Lahainaluna offensive linemen practice their technique in drills earlier this month. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Now, co-head coach Dean Rickard and the veteran Lahainaluna staff are in full football mode, something that hasn’t happened at this time of year since 2019.

They host Maui High on Saturday in the MIL opener for both teams.

The Lunas are riding a 31-game league winning streak dating to 2016, an MIL football record.

“It feels great knowing that we have got eight games before playoffs,” Rickard said prior to practice Wednesday. “And we got another game under our belt, which was a very, very important game coming into this game against Maui High, having that Hilo game, which gave us the best opportunity to evaluate and reshuffle and realign.”

With 51 players on the varsity roster, including 14 seniors and 27 juniors, the Lunas will have the unusual luxury of keeping nearly all of their players on one side of the ball this season.

Akahi-Vida

Sophomore Kaulana Tihada rolled up 169 yards on the ground against Hilo, while returning starter Ian-Jay Cabanilla had 109 rushing yards and 23 yards on two catches. Cabanilla led the MIL in rushing last season with 566 yards and four touchdowns on 55 carries (10.3-yard average).

“Kaulana, he showed that he is kind of the workhorse — him and Ian-Jay kind of shared the carries,” Rickard said. “You know us, we kind of spread it around.”

Garret Tihada has returned to the team as offensive coordinator after three years away and he has numerous weapons to work with. The Lunas switch formations as quickly as any team in the state, from option, to spread, to wing-T, to wildcat and sometimes others.

“We found out years ago that our offense is based on the skill of our athletes that we have year to year,” Rickard said. “We try to utilize as much as we can with the kids that we have. … What we try to create, for sure — and especially with Garret coming back as offensive coordinator — is many different looks for the defense to worry about.”

Rickard also said slotback T.J. Borges and quarterback Lyric Kahula will be new faces that will be counted on heavily on offense this season, to go along with returning starters Noa Gordon at quarterback, Cabanilla and linemen Jaysen Akahi-Vida and Morgan “Bula” Montgomery.

Lahainaluna’s Lance Morikawa (left) and Kahi Magno celebrate during the Lunas’ 30-7 victory over Konawaena in a Division I state semifinal game on Dec. 17. ANDREW LEE photo

“We’ll have multiple formations, multiple looks, we’ll come out of a tight end set as well,” Rickard said.

Rickard said Kahula and Gordon “will be sharing (quarterback) duties for sure because we’ve got different packages, where they fit in. Lyric had some good passing yards (96 yards and two TDs vs. Hilo) and Noa can do the options and then he can do a lot of the scrambles when that becomes necessary. Actually escape the pocket or getting out of the pocket, he’s the guy to do it.

“So, it kind of depends on what defense we’re facing, which opponents we’re facing, how we scouted them — that will dictate the packages that we are going to use.”

Last year, Kaulana Tihada started at linebacker, but he is a starting running back this year and will concentrate carrying the ball, although he may be occasionally called on to play defense as well, Rickard said.

At left tackle, Akahi-Vida is a big part of the old plan for the Lunas, which means starting in the trenches and building out. Akahi-Vida said going against the Lunas defensive line in practice each day is a tough assignment.

“We kind of have that hard time in practice, but when it gets into a game it makes it easier,” Akahi-Vida said.

While the lopsided loss to Iolani last December still stings, Akahi-Vida is ready to roll.

“I’m always thinking about it, it’s practically on my mind every time I go out on the field, but I just remember what I’m here for and what’s the goal for the team and what’s my part to do,” he said.

The defense is led by lineman L.J. Morikawa, a 5-10, 210-pound senior and the reigning MIL Defensive Player of the Year. Fellow senior DL Keahi Kane-Keahi (6-2, 200) and defensive back Kuola Watson are also returning starters.

Morikawa is confident this team can excel again.

“We can be as good as we want to be,” he said. “We just need to work hard and keep our minds focused on the main goal, which is making it back to states and winning it all.”

Sophomore Kahi Magno (5-7, 170), who saw significant playing time last season, and Josese “Anu” Kaina (5-11, 190, Sr.), who returns after spending last season on the Mainland, will be key at linebacker spots.

Rickard describes Kaina “as a true red Lahainaluna boy” and said he will be counted on heavily as the defense changes to the need of what they are facing.

“We don’t have a base defense, everybody asks us,” Rickard said. “If we have to go to a four-man front, we’ll go to a four-man front. If we have to do a three-man front, we’ll do a three-man front. You’ll see us starting a four, go to a three, start with a three, go into a four.

“It all depends on how well the kids can do their assignments. If they do it well throughout the game, then we won’t switch it up. If the game dictates that we’ve got to switch it up, then we’ll four men up front if they’re running on us. It all depends.”

Against Maui High, the Lunas are likely to start in a four-man front.

“With Maui High, you will probably see more of a four-man front because they have kind of established themselves as a core running game, that’s what we’ve seen in the film,” Rickard said. “So, we expect them to try to use their physical size. I mean, they have got to be the biggest team on Maui right now. … Maui High has got some big boys everywhere, including backfield, linebacking corps, defensive line, offensive line.

“I think Maui High is a pretty solid, physically bigger team than most of the teams in the league, no doubt.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

*****

Lunas at a Glance

2021 record: 6-0 MIL, 7-1 overall (lost in D-I state championship game)

Returning starters: 4 offense, 4 defense

Offense: Option, spread, wing-T, wildcat

Defense: 4-4, 3-5

*****

MIL Football

Today’s Game

Baldwin at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m.

Saturday’s Game

Maui High at Lahainaluna, 7 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 26

Baldwin vs. Maui High at War Memorial Stadium, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 27

Kamehameha Maui at King Kekaulike, 7 p.m.

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