Red Raiders' smothering defense turned the tide


HALAWA — Kahuku's defense lived up to its billing Friday night.

As they did all season, the Red Raiders rode their defense en route to their eighth state football title in school history with their 39-14 win over Saint Louis before a crowd of 19,699 fans at Hawaiian Airlines Field at Aloha Stadium.

Kahuku forced six turnovers and held Saint Louis to a season-low 139 yards of total offense.

"We used the same stuff we used all year," said junior defensive back Stokes Botelho, who had two of his team's three picks against Crusaders' quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. "To be honest, that's what we did: We came out, we prepared the same way, we knew that Tua was a dual threat and that made it more challenging, but our preparation and game plan was the same."

Botelho's first interception — which came on a third-and-41 near midfield — halted an eight-play Saint Louis drive in the second quarter and came two plays after an Aaron Tapusoa sack.

"Our main goal was actually to get the back end," Botelho said. "If we kept the back end covered then the blitz and the rush will come home and we'll get the sacks."

Tapusoa, a senior linebacker, said it was a matter of staying disciplined.

"Everybody just did their assignments and the advantage came to us when we got the ball and we took advantage of it," said Tapusoa, who also had a sack on third down that led to a Saint Louis punt late in the first quarter. "We just executed coach's plan and worked together and did our assignment."

The Red Raiders actually rallied from an early deficit after the Crusaders scored on a 10-yard blocked punt return just 52 seconds into the game.

The comeback started, not surprisingly, with the defense.

On Saint Louis' second play from scrimmage, Codie Sauvao forced a fumble after a completed pass, which was recovered by his teammate, Keala Santiago. It eventually led to an 11-yard touchdown run for Kesi Ah-Hoy — his first of three TD runs on the night.

"The defense always put us in good field position," said Ah-Hoy, a junior quarterback. "They're the backbone of our team, they're always motivating us like ‘We got you, we got you, we got you,' so that just motivates us to where it makes us want to score more, because they put in a lot of work."

The Crusaders turned it over — on another fumble — just one play later. Kekaula Kaniho jarred the ball loose from Tagovailoa and Jess Kanongataa came up with the recovery. Nine plays later — on a fourth-and-1 — Ah-Hoy bursted through the middle of the line for a 6-yard score.

"Football is a game of momentum and every time we scored or made something happen our crowd backed us up and gave us the momentum," said Kaniho, a junior defensive back.

Saint Louis, which entered the game averaging nearly 40 points and 470 yards of total offense per game, was held to just 55 first-half yards. Tagovailoa, who was coming off a 376-yard, three-TD passing performance in last week's semifinal win over Mililani, finished with just 68 yards through the air on 7-of-15 passing. Furthermore, he averaged just 1.2 yards on each of his six rush attempts.

"We knew that (Tagovailoa) could run, so pressuring him would open gaps so containing him was the perfect solution," Tapusoa said.

Kanongataa dropped Tagovailoa for a sack and an 11-yard loss in the early parts of the fourth quarter and one play later — on third-and-19 — Santiago recorded his seventh interception in his last four games, which led to Ah-Hoy's 19-yard TD run seven plays later.

"It's what we do all year, just continue to work hard and just watch film," said Santiago. "Film is key to defeating a guy like (Tagovailoa). You've got to know their playbook and you've got to know what to do, so just film study and really repping in practice."

Saint Louis finished with minus-52 yards of rushing and was just 2 of 11 on third-down conversions. It averaged just 2.5 yards per play for the game.

"They played well defensively," Crusaders' coach Cal Lee said of Kahuku. "They put a lot of pressure on us and I think they caused (Tagovailoa) to be not as comfortable as he normally would be."

Kahuku first-year coach Vavae Tata said he slightly adjusted his defensive game plan to appease his players.

"You know what, the kids wanted to blitz more so we installed a lot of blitzes from different angles and it's just all about the mix, keeping the quarterback and not letting him know where we're bringing pressure," Tata said. "It's all disguise."

The 14 points Saint Louis scored Friday was the most surrendered by Kahuku in any game this season. Still, Kahuku allowed just 4.1 points per game and 53 total points on the year. Opponents managed an average of just 126.6 yards per game.

"These kids battled throughout the whole season," Tata said. "We played 12 games and they just fight to the bitter end. Hats off to my coaching staff, offensively, defensively and special teams. They had a phenomenal game plan they put together tonight and we came out victorious. It's a great thing for our seniors going out on top. They've been through a whole lot, a whole lot."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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