Lunas Outlast Sabers in Defensive Season Finale
By Rodney S. Yap
Whoever said defense wins championships and offense wins games must have been describing the Maui Interscholastic League and its season-ending champion’s duel.
Lahainaluna High School utilized its big-game experience and ability to make seamless adjustments in the heat of battle to spoil Maui High’s homecoming, 21-0, Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
A crowd of about 5,000 — red on one side, blue on the other — watched the MIL’s regular-season finale between Division I champion Maui High and Division II Lahainaluna. With both teams already clinching league titles and the state tournament berths that accompany those feats, Saturday’s contest proved to be more of a statement game and pride challenge than a post-season dress rehearsal.
“We are trying to use it as a measuring-stick game to see how much better we are in this game from the last time we played against them,” said Maui High head coach David Bui, who’s team came up short to the Lunas in the first round 14-0. “Although the score had a bigger difference in this game compared to the last game, I felt we were better. We weren’t frazzled or out of our element. Our kids felt good, and you could see we were more comfortable playing in this game, with that playoff atmosphere.”
The top-ranked Lunas extended their MIL winning streak to 17 and completed their second consecutive perfect (8-0) season.
Saturday’s league finale was extra special for six Lahainaluna four-year seniors. The names Connor Mowat, Jared Rocha-Islas, Ansen Cabanilla, Scott Isaac Medeiros-Tangatailoa, Brandon Kaina, and Justin Hong have appeared on the Lunas’ varsity roster the last four years, during which time the Lunas went 35-8.
As the top Division II team in the state, the Lunas (9-0 overall) will likely be awarded the tournament’s No. 1 seed, which means they will get a bye into the state semifinals on Nov. 15.
Meanwhile, Maui High (7-2 overall) will host the second- or third-place team from the Oahu Interscholastic Association on Nov. 8 in the Division I state quarterfinals at War Memorial Stadium.
Lahainaluna’s defense was stellar again — led by journeymen Mowat and Kaina — recording its 13th MIL shutout over the veterans’ career. Not surprising, the Lunas’ defense contributed the game’s second touchdown when linebacker Ryan Delatori landed on a Saber fumble in the end zone.
The third-quarter touchdown was the insurance score the Lunas needed and it came with 6 minutes, 39 seconds to play in the third quarter. Ironically, it was Delatori’s savvy 50-yard interception return for touchdown that sealed the Lunas’ 14-0 fate in their first-round meeting.
“The defense is coached up well,” said Lahainaluna co-head coach Garret Tihada. “They worked hard and they did everything we ask them to do.
“They’re a good, physical team,” said Tihada of Maui High, who is making its first postseason appearance in 14 years. “Those two Vainikolo kids (Alexander Moana and Atunaisa) have been doing some damage. They are really, really solid up front. They are hard to move and get around. We thought we could do certain things, but they were a little bit quicker and stronger than we anticipated.”
Tihada said his play-calling priority was to run away from defensive end Alexander Vanikolo’s side.
“We noticed that and we chose to make some lineup adjustments to force them back that way or to make them choose who they wanted to run through by putting Soane Vaohea on the opposite side,” countered Bui.
Lahainaluna’s first touchdown midway through the first quarter came on a fourth down, 17-yard play-action pass from quarterback Makoa Sione Filikitonga-Lukela to slanting Medeiros-Tangatailoa.
“We thought we could spread them out a little bit, push their corners wide and hit them on the inside and that’s exactly how it worked out. That play actually never works like that in practice.”
Bui said the Lunas executed better when it mattered — including the touchdown pass on fourth down — and they made fewer mistakes.
“We prepared the boys well and we did some of the things that we asked them to do. I thought we limited our penalties and we were able to get a pad-level lower. We were able to move the ball in the first half, unlike the first game when we couldn’t even get a snap off. . . . But it came down to some key mistakes during the game and Lahainaluna capitalized on that.”
Looking to spark his offense, Tihada had Filikitonga-Lukela behind center to start the second half and the playmaking quarterback showed off his option skills by leading the Lunas down the field to the Sabers’ 1-yard line before Maui High answered the challenge with a goal-line stand.
“We were hoping to build off some of the momentum we had from the first half, as far as moving the ball. But when we started the second half with them taking it all the way to the one-yard line and us starting our possession there kind of changed everything for us.
“If we could have gotten a first down and kept our offense on the field things might have been different, but then our defense ended up playing a little too much and they started to wear out.”
The Sabers’ offense had a few wrinkles of their own for the Lunas’ defense.
“They shifted into different formations, and had their tackle and tight end in motion, which we weren’t totally ready for,” Tihada admitted. “But Coach (Bobby) Watson adjusted to that really, really quick, so in a way it wasn’t a factor.”
The Lunas held the Sabers to 86 yards and rolled up 241 yards their own.
“We told the kids how proud we are of them. They are going to get a day off on Monday and we will get back to work on Tuesday.”
Saturday’s MIL Scoring Summary
At War Memorial Stadium
LUNAS 21, NA ALII 3
Lahainaluna ……. 7 ….. 0 ….. 7 ….. 7—21
Maui High ….. 0 ……. 0 ….. 0 …… 0—0
LH—Scott-Isaac Medeiros-Tangatailoa 17 pass from Makoa Filikitonga (Jared Rocha-Islas kick), 6:16.
LH—Ryan Delatori fumble recovery in end zone (Rocha-Islas kick), 6:39.
LH—Filikitonga 87 run (Josten Saribay kick), 3:40.
Junior varsity: Lahainaluna 14, Maui High 3.
* All statistics complied by Rob Collias of The Maui News.