Kailua's Joe Wong and Moanalua's Savaii Eselu are among those prep football coaches at their alma mater, but they also share a common bond in the trenches.
Wong, who graduated from Kailua in 1994 before going to play collegiately at BYU and professionally with the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders, played offensive line, while Eselu, a 2007 Moanalua alumnus who played college football at Cal, was a tight end in his day.
It's no surprise then that both coaches pointed to the offensive and defensive lines as key factors when their respective teams face off to open the Oahu Interscholastic Association season this weekend.
The Surfriders went 3-5 in 2016 and finished sixth in the OIA D1 Red with a 2-5 mark. They have yet to play a game this season.
Na Menehune (0-1), who posted a 2-5 record (2-6 overall) and fifth-place finish in OIA D1 Blue play last year, are coming off a 35-7 loss to No. 4 Punahou last week in non-league action.
Moanalua hung tough with the Buffanblu for much of the game — trailing just 7-0 at halftime — before it allowed four second-half touchdowns.
Kailua held on for a hard-fought 16-13 win over Moanalua when the teams squared off last season. The Surfriders rushed for 120 of their 221 yards of total offense and limited Na Menehune to minus-65 rushing yards — thanks in part to six sacks — and just 99 overall.
We caught up with both Wong and Eselu a few days before their teams meet on the field Friday night.
ScoringLive: What have you learned about your team so far this season?
Joe Wong, Kailua coach: "For me, you'd think that I'm offensive-minded, but I'm actually a defensive-minded guy and what I've seen from my defense from everybody we (scrimmaged), including Saint Louis, is that we're going to get after people. We lost a big one in (two-time All-Hawaii D1 defensive end) Christian (Mejia), but that was a one, and all-around defensively we're good. I like to have a strong defense. We (Oakland Raiders, 2001) lost the Super Bowl because our defense wasn't as good as Tampa's. It's like the old saying goes, defense wins championships."
Savaii Eselu, Moanalua coach: "I've learned that we're resilient. Don't let our stature or our roster size fool you, (because) definitely pound for pound these kids will duke it out with anybody, so that's always a plus. I've also learned, I mean, I guess it's kind of obvious, but I learned we're young. We're young on paper and we're really young in the sport of football, so there's a learning curve that needs to happen quickly. If we want to survive and play in November, that's always key."
ScoringLive: Where has your team shown the most improvement over the offseason?
Wong: "It's all over. I would say offensively and defensively the way we look at it as a staff is these kids have grasped everything that we've taught so far and we have to raise the bar as coaches to not be at a stalemate. If we're just going to be satisfied with where we are now, it's not going to do them any justice and so we're raising the bar. Practice is intense and you hear ‘practice makes perfect,' but that's not it. Perfect practice makes perfect. We strive for perfection every day. Like (late Oakland Raiders' owner) Al Davis used to say, when I was there, ‘commitment to excellence.' We've got to be committed and myself and my staff will not let anyone settle for mediocre practice or mediocre reps. We'll dissect mistakes, but praise you on the good things you've done, so you'll know that even though there was praise, you still have to work on your craft. They've accepted that and they understand now why we push so hard and I'm most proud for them accepting that and wanting to get better. We want to be good on Aug. 4, but we want to be great when the season starts progressing and going on and we want to be peaking going into the playoffs. They've bought into that. These kids have been in our system for four years, from when they were freshmen when we started this whole thing and now they're seniors."
Eselu: "The most improvement, I would have to say just the camaraderie and the level of play when they're together. Just kind of comparing it to last year, last year we had a whole lot of talent — this year I wouldn't say we're rebuilding to take away from what we do have — but the plus is they all know how to work together with all the pieces they have."
ScoringLive: What did last year's game against this week's opponent provide?
Wong: "It showed us that we were actually still searching for our identity in that game. We had lost (starting quarterback) Aaron (Mejia) the week before, so Keoni (Serikawa) was in there and we were searching for an identity with how we would play that game with him and (Mark) Lagazo. That game showed that we had a very strong rushing attack, and that got better in the weeks to come, (but) our passing game struggled in that game. (This year) I think we're ahead of my expectations in the passing game, (but) the running game has to improve. We can really get after our opponent offensively and defensively. Against Aiea (in scrimmage last week), I had just gotten into our guys about getting after the quarterback and right before we started they told me (Aiea's) quarterback was not live. That does a lot mentally to the player because they were ready to get out there and fly around — not hurt anybody — but get to the quarterback defensively, and my team knows that defense will set the tone for the game. I'm an offensive guy, but I'm defensive minded. One of our coaches had to step away this year, so I have the defensive ends and I work with the d-line, so I'm right there in the thick of things as a position coach and then I'm the head coach. I don't want to give that (defensive line coach) to just anybody because that's a very intricate part of our defense."
Eselu: "That we need to be focused and if we don't have the external factors that affect how we prepare, then we'll actually make it a good battle. So last year was just a total lack of focus. This year hopefully it turns into a driving factor to execute based off of the preparation."
ScoringLive: What are your thoughts on this week's opponent?
Wong: "I've been watching film on then against Punahou. They look like they've got their offensive scheme going. I know Savaii will have them ready to go. He's a former player and he knows what it takes and how intense it gets on the field. I know he'll have them ready. It looks like they do a lot of good things on the field and it's just going to come down to, as any other game, who makes less mistakes and continues to press on that gas pedal will come out on top."
Eselu: "We never ever take them lightly. We know all about Kailua football. Coach Wong has definitely done an awesome job there. I feel like they've accustomed themselves to his personality and his approach to the game and it definitely shows. You see these guys blitz and they're not going to hide anything. It's either you handle it or you don't. They're pretty straightforward in what they're doing. They're pretty focused on the task at hand for themselves and it's good because there's a lot of growth that's happened there and I've seen it from the outside, so I'm excited (for Friday's game)."
ScoringLive: Is there a specific matchup within the game that you feel will be especially important?
Wong: "I believe in any game that it's going to be the defensive front against their o-line and my o-line against their d-line. It's a battle of the trenches. I believe the skill (positions) and the second just have to take care of itself, but the lines and the fronts are going to set the tone for the game. That's the key: changing the line of scrimmage on offense and controlling it on defense."
Eselu: "Right now, the o-line and the d-line. They have a few stunts that do happen that I know of, but they have this zero technique that can just obliterate everything. If we can handle the point of attack with the nose, that will help us out a lot because with a lot of guys down here, if you disrupt the center then you should be able to disrupt a lot."
Kickoff between the Surfriders and Na Menehune Friday is scheduled for approximately 7 p.m. at Radford's John Velasco Stadium.
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