By Rodney S. Yap
There are linebackers and there are middle linebackers.
The middle linebacker or “mike” linebacker is the central anchor point in any good defense. He’s the key run stopper and involved in almost every tackle on running plays. He epitomizes the football player persona, because he’s big, strong, and hard-nosed. He is also a key vocal leader, calling out formations and strengths, and communicating adjustments.
Baldwin High School’s Nohea Keahi used to be an outside linebacker. Two weeks ago Baldwin moved Keahi inside and the 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior, who is never shy of contact, has injected new energy to a rebuilding defense.
“Since we moved Nohea to the middle he’s really, really stepped up his game,” said Baldwin head coach Keneke Pacheco. “He’s been impressive, he’s making plays, he’s making tackles, he’s dropping back into space, he’s playing spy and more read eyes, go-to ball. He’s doing a great job.”
On Friday, Keahi had a career-best two-interception game against Kamehameha Maui. His first pick helped Baldwin build a 34-7 halftime lead at Kanaiaupuni Stadium, and his second interception — returned 32 yards for touchdown with 10 seconds left in the game — preserved the Bears’ 44-21 victory over Kamehameha Maui.
“It felt great,” Keahi said of his interceptions and the Bears’ third straight win. “The second one felt like I helped seal the win.”
The Bears improved to 5-1 in the Maui Interscholastic League and 2-0 in the second round, drawing to within one win of their 11th state-tournament berth in 12 years.
Kamehameha Maui welcomed the return of its head coach Cody Nakamura, who was suspended for one game by the school for an incident involving a Maui High School player on the Warrior sidelines Sept. 14. The Warriors are 0-2 in the second round and 1-5 overall, losing five consecutive games since their 29-0 season-opening triumphant over King Kekaulike. The team’s current losing streak is the school’s longest since its 0-6 inaugural season in 2004.
Coaches describe “mike” linebackers as guys who like to hit, and can bring down running backs one-on-one.
Pacheco said Keahi’s overall athleticism and nose for the football makes him a natural choice at middle linebacker.
“He’s always around the ball and moving him to the middle opens up avenues that he would not be experiencing if we had kept him on the outside. Now he’s dealing with more responsibility, but he’s doing a great job transitioning. He’s the kind of player who just wants to ball. He wants to play football and have a blast doing it. He genuinely enjoys the game and has a high football IQ.”
Because the Warriors are predominately a pass-first offense, Keahi’s responsibility on Friday was to spy on Kamehameha Maui quarterback Chase Newton. The task required Keahi to drop in pass coverage, and move laterally with the passing game.
“Basically I was designated to spy on Chase,” Keahi said. “Playing the middle I was able see the field a little better.”
Keahi said his two takeaways on Friday was extra special because it came against Newton, his boyhood buddy from Waihee School.
“Yeah, it was really fun. We’ve been best friends since the third grade, that’s why we both wear No. 11.”
Although the two went their separate ways after Iao School, they still talk,” Keahi said.
“Usually he’ll call me after our big games and we’ll talk and stuff. But we always joke around on the field. I razz him all the time.”
Keahi said he reminded Newton on what he was in store for when he tackled the Warrior quarterback early in the game.
“I told him he better get used to it cause I’m going to be there all night,” Keahi laughed. “But when he makes a good play or jukes me, he razzes me, too.”
“It’s fun,” Newton said. “We can talk smack to each other and then laugh about it.”
On the interceptions, Keahi said: “I was just flowing to where he was looking.”
“Right now Nohea is finding himself as a football player,” Pacheco said. “He’s starting to take the reins. He’s becoming a leader and the kids follow him. The potential for him to be a great leader is there and I think he’s taking it and making the most of his opportunity.”
Keahi said: “Being a leader is a big role and I not really the leader, Teva (Eldridge), Alika (Ezera) and Dusty (Flores) are the leaders. I’m just a junior and they are seniors.
“Defensively we’ve really picked it up the last two games and coach (Pacheco) just told us to play with emotion and cheer on your teammates when they make a good play.”
“Even though he’s not a designated captain. He wants to help the team and he’s realizing that you don’t have to be a captain to be a leader.”
Newton, who played some defense of his own at cornerback Friday, said he is happy for his friend, but frustrated with his team’s struggles.
“Making bad decisions under pressure,” Newton said. “I feel like I’m trying to do too much and it turns into bad things.”
Pachceo said Keahi has college potential if he maintains his work ethic on and off the field.
“Everything is flowing together for him right now. He’s doing well in his attendance, in school and taking on that leadership role even though he’s not a designated captain. You have to love that. You have to love that in any kid — he makes himself accountable.
“If he takes the right classes and continues to improve and stay healthy I think he could play at the college level. . . . When he shows up to the field he’s ready to play and he’s got a bit of an edge to him.
“I think it’s important to take guys like Nohea and utilize their ability to lead, however small it is. You can see that he brings a different kind of energy and as coaches we see a different product on the field.”
Friday’s MIL Summary
Baldwin 7 27 3 7—44
KS Mau 7 0 7 7—21
BH—Dusty Flores 5 run (Ricky Casco kick), 9:27.
KM—Cal Alexander 3 run (Kailoa Akoi kick), 3:21.
BH—Jeremiah Badillo 45 run (kick failed), 11:47.
BH—Kawela Kaeo-Mata 48 pass from Badillo (Casco kick), 5:02.
BH—Josiah Maglente-Tonu 26 pass from Badillo (Casco kick), 0:55.
BH—Atreil Tanaka 24 pass from Badillo (Casco kick), 0:04.
BH—Casco 21 FG, 10:11.
KM—Chase Newton 5 run (Akoi kick), 3:47.
KM—Joshua Hiwatashi 10 pass from Newton (Akoi kick), 3:38.
BH—Nohea Keahi 32 interception return (Casco kick), 0:10.
Junior varsity-Baldwin 35, Kamehameha Maui 7.
Saturday’s MIL Summary
Lahainaluna 28 7 13 7—55
King Kekaulike 6 0 0 0—6
KK—Ian Manibog 11 fumble return (kick failed), 10:04.
LL—Christian Whitehead 6 run (Jared Rocha-Islas kick), 9:31.
LL—Rocha-Islas 12 run (Rocha-Islas kick), 8:16.
LL—Ansen Cabanilla 62 punt return (Rocha-Islas kick), 4:45.
LL—Jeffery Ancog 49 interception return (Rocha-Islas kick), 3:50.
LL—Rocha-Islas 2 pass from Makoa Filikitonga (Rocha-Islas kick), 2:18.
LL—Filikitonga 21 run (kick failed), 10:21.
LL—Robert Campos 40 run (Rocha-Islas kick), 4:35.
LL—Donovan Defang 27 run (Rocha-Islas kick), :38.
Junior varsity-Lahainaluna 25, King Kekaulike 7.