PUKALANI — If there has been a team of destiny in the Maui Interscholastic League in the last two decades or more in football, it sure feels like the 2022 King Kekaulike High School team is it.
A team that started with a bang, saw a letdown in the middle, experienced the heart-wrenching loss of a family member, but is finishing in the promised land rolled on Saturday night, in impressive fashion.
Na Alii bolted past Nanakuli 20-0 in a First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division II semifinal in front of a standing room-only crowd at King Kekaulike Stadium — much of the crowd was from Nanakuli, but it was the Na Alii faithful who stayed around to watch the victors sing the school song at the end of the night.
“I’m excited, I mean we’re back to the big show, going to the mothership, so we’re excited, we prepped hard for it,” King Kekaulike head coach Tyson Valle said. “I’m proud of this coaching staff and I’m proud of these players.”
King Kekaulike will play Waimea for the state crown this Saturday, at 4 p.m. at Mililani High School, the Upcountry school’s second state title berth in its second state trip ever — Waimea beat Na Alii at King Kekaulike Stadium 21-10 in August.
Na Alii won the 2006 D-II state crown, becoming the first-ever Neighbor Island team to claim an HHSAA football title.
Clarence Rivers, a former head coach who had been with the King Kekaulike program since its second season in 1996, passed away on Oct. 6 at the age of 74.
“It definitely was the best game that I’ve ever played, I just kept Coach C in mind,” said senior linebacker Jacob Poouahi, who had a game-high 10 tackles, including one for loss. “Speechless, it’s awesome. That’s all I’ve got to say. A long time going, 16 years, but we did it and we’re back, baby. States, here we come.”
King Kekaulike had been stamped as the No. 1 seed, but Nanakuli came into the game on a 10-game winning streak and 10-1 overall while King Kekaulike was 4-6 with wins over only two teams, MIL D-II rival Kamehameha Maui and 0-9 Baldwin.
Few outside those clad in black and teal thought of Na Alii as favorites in this game.
King Kekaulike rolled to a 20-0 lead at halftime behind its vaunted rushing attack and a startlingly strong defense that limited the Golden Hawks to 16 total yards and zero first downs in the first 24 minutes of play.
After two scoreless possessions for both teams, Ahe Sumibcay rumbled 71 yards after taking the second of a double handoff play to make it 6-0 with 3:58 left in the first quarter.
A 17-yard punt set up the next score, a 4-yard run up the middle by Kalani Puu with 7:43 left in the half to push the lead to 12-0.
Kalelepono Wong had an 12-yard run on second-and-17 and Sumibcay had a 7-yard run on fourth-and-4 on another double handoff play two plays before the touchdown.
Na Alii went 54 yards in nine plays to push the lead to 20-0 — taking 3:59 off the clock — when Tysin Zackious scored from 1 yard out with 1:54 left in the first half.
The big play on the drive was a third-and-21 pass from Wong to Kamakalei Stone that took the ball to the 1.
The Golden Hawks were 0 for 4 on third-down and 0 for 1 on fourth-down conversion tries in the first half, when the tone was set in stone.
King Kekaulike rushed for 231 yards in the game and Wong was 2-for-4 passing for 43 yards.
Valle was somewhat shocked to see much of the stands filled with yellow and black of the Golden Hawks.
“Man, I was surprised to see the crowd, surprised to see how Nanakuli showed their support, but like anything else, they love their players, just like our community does, too,” Valle said. “So, it was a fun game, exciting game.”
Na Alii entered this season on a 3-53 skid that started a couple games in to the 2014 season, included a 41-game losing streak that ended in 2019 and an 0-6 mark in 2021.
After the preseason loss to Waimea in August, they beat Baldwin and Kamehameha Maui to open the MIL season.
Nui Crozier, a 6-foot-4, 410-pound guard, was injured soon after that and he did not return to the field until a 28-25 win over Kamehameha Maui, last season’s HHSAA D-II runner-up, in an MIL playoff game on Oct. 29.
Without Crozier in the lineup for much of the season due to his knee injury, Na Alii went 1-5 in MIL play after their 2-0 start. None of that matters now.
“We’re going to the state final,” Crozier shouted over the boisterous atmosphere on the field and in the stands. “It’s very shocking. I don’t know, I’m shocked again. Man, it’s great.”
He then peered into the crowd.
“Man, it’s a packed house, more than I thought would show up,” he said. “I said it would be a packed house, but I didn’t think it would be this packed.”
Crozier looked over at his linebacker teammate Poouahi, and again shouted. Senior defensive lineman Devin Roberts had three tackles — two for loss — one sack, a pass break-up and a fumble recovery for Na Alii.
Nanakuli finished the game with 110 yards of total offense.
“Poouahi was on fire tonight, our whole defense was on fire,” Crozier said. “Devin, Devin was on fire.”
Valle said his team prepared for Nanakuli for the three weeks they had since their playoff win over Kamehameha Maui.
Poouahi said it worked — Nanakuli running backs Nathan Pele-Tukumoeatu, Allen Mahoe III and Imi Asinsin combined for 75 yards on 22 carries.
“I gotta be honest with you, we prepared for No. 40 and No. 21 and No. 24, we prepared for the whole running scheme,” Poouahi said. “We plowed down, we got down, and we did what we had to do.”
Poouahi had one regret — he dropped a pass in the end zone while he was wide open in the second quarter.
“That was me, I dropped it,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the heck?’ No excuses though, doesn’t matter now.”
Poouahi and Roberts led the stingy defense.
“Tonight, they came out to play,” Valle said.
It was a fateful decision by Valle and staff to go to the wing T run, run, run offense over the offseason that has paid big dividends for Na Alii.
“Not at the beginning of the year,” Valle said of his thoughts of success to start the season. “We still were kind of rough going into the wing T, but week after week we got better. Things were pretty promising — we know we were playing good teams in the MIL, so if we could compete and hang in with those guys, I thought we could do fairly well going into the playoffs.”
For Nanakuli, the Valley Isle bookended a 10-2 season with shutout losses. They opened the season with a 16-0 loss to Maui High in August at War Memorial Stadium.
The windy, rainy conditions were hard for both teams all of Saturday night.
“I mean, we gotta make do with what you’ve got, you’re dealt different hands, tonight it’s cold, field is slippery, so much rain, but these are not excuses,” Nanakuli coach Kili Watson said. “We told our team it’s going to be a different environment than what we’re used to, we’re just going to have to deal with it, make the best of the things we can control. … We can’t let this game reflect the awesome work that this team has put in. This is an awesome team.”
*Robert Collias is at email@example.com
Nanakuli 0 0 0 0–0
King Kekaulike 6 14 0 0–20
KK–Ahe Sumibcay 71 run (kick failed), 3:58.
KK–Kalani Puu 4 run (run failed), 7:43.
KK–Tysin Zackious 1 run (Puu run), 1:54.
• State Football Championships •
Saturday’s Results • Semifinals
No. 1 King Kekaulike 20, No. 4 Nanakuli 0
No. 3 Waimea 17, No. 2 Honokaa 0
Saturday, Nov. 26 • Championship
King Kekaulike vs. Waimea at Mililani,
Friday’s Results • Semifinals
No. 1 Kahuku 32, Campbell 7
No. 2 Punahou 52, Mililani 24
Friday, Nov. 25 • Championship
Kahuku vs. Punahou at Mililani, 7 p.m.
Saturday’s Results • Semifinals
No. 4 Waipahu 35, No. 1 Iolani 10
No. 2 Konawaena 27, Aiea 24
Saturday, Nov. 26 • Championship
Waipahu vs. Konawaena at Mililani, 7 p.m.