How Kahuku and Punahou match up in the Open Division title game

Nov. 24—The 2022 schedule didn't include mainland powerhouses, but there's this : they went to Kahuku's house and nearly pulled out a win in September.

BUFFANBLU OFFENSE The 2022 schedule didn't include mainland powerhouses, but there's this : they went to Kahuku's house and nearly pulled out a win in September. Punahou is clearly better now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The young O-line has cleared paths aplenty for Ala 'i Williams, who rushed for an Open Division state-tourney record 237 yards, plus four TDs, in a 52-24 win over Mililani last week.

The patience and trust of QB John-Keawe Sagapolutele (2, 184 yards, 25 TDs, 69 % completion rate ) has been pivotal. The fourth-year starter has always had the courage and the arm strength, but getting pulled in the middle of the loss at Kahuku seemed to spark a subtle change. The trust that Sagapolutele talks about includes his young receiving corps. Astin Hange (61 receptions, 1, 057 yards, eight TDs ) and Noah Macapulay (48, 686, 11 ) are just juniors, and over the course of this season, Sagapolutele's chemistry with them has been key. Both are game-changers with the ball after the catch, which puts immense pressure on defenses trying to rein in Williams (939 yards, 15 TDs, 7.5 yards per attempt ).

The mobility and power of this O-line, which has only one senior, has been there from day one. Their growth as a unit gives Punahou a chance to do more offensively against Kahuku than it did last time. Averaging 6 feet, 1 inch and 273 pounds per man, the O-line has the edge over Kahuku in terms of girth. Dealing with Kahuku's explosive pass rush, deceptive coverages and run-stopping techniques gives this matchup a chess, not checkers, vibe.

BUFFANBLU DEFENSE The Buffanblu have featured one of the premier defensive units in the islands for years, but 2022 is outright special. Coach Nate Kia runs a tight ship that requires equal doses of discipline, ferocity and precision. Punahou limited Mililani to 15 rushing yards in the semifinal win last week, led by linebackers Alika Cavaco-Amoy (nine tackles ), GianCarlo Rufo (six tackles, four for loss ) and Blayne Shiraki (five tackles ).

Punahou will show a massive variety of looks at times, bringing six, seven, occasionally eight pass rushers, or dropping eight and rushing three. The base trench men—Kekai Burnett, Faiafua Ioane and Kielan Simani—give most offensive lines more heat than can be handled. Burnett has become a game-changer since adding 25 pounds to his frame in the offseason. The Buffanblu hoops team is eagerly awaiting his return.—RELATED :

The defensive backfield, led by senior Travis Ross, has been resilient. Not perfect, but close to it. How they deal with Kahuku playmakers, including Kainoa Carvalho, will make a crucial difference.

BUFFANBLU SPECIAL TEAMS Is Jordan Kapisi the best place-kicker in Hawaii ? In terms of consistency, distance, accuracy and the most wicked arsenal of onside kicks and pooch kickoffs, it probably is Kapisi. He is a game-changer with the constant touchbacks on kickoffs, virtually automatic, and earned a scholarship offer from Hawaii after Friday's win over Mililani.

Hange has breakaway potential on returns, and Punahou's overall consistency in the kicking and punting game is matched by very few. They may not return as many kicks for scores, or block as many kicks as Kahuku, but the potential is there.

RED RAIDERS OFFENSE Championship runs always begin up front for Big Red, which averages 6 feet, 2 inches and 295 pounds per man. Power is Kahuku's game, which suits the north-south running style of Va 'aimalae Fonoti. The extent of passing plays and schemes has forced Kahuku trench men to evolve over a fairly short span of time. When they face inclement weather, they can bear down, shorten a game and use a ground-and-pound approach to grind out a win, which was the case on a muddy field at Campbell early in the season. Coach Sterling Carvalho's commitment to the passing game has forced defenses to respect both aspects. With the recent return of WR Kainoa "Kaikai " Carvalho, there should be more space for Fonoti to work with.

Kahuku's offense can take risks, but it seldom does, thanks to dominant defense and special teams. It's all about field position and ball security. Waika Crawford completed 11 of 20 pass attempts for 71 yards (with one interception ) in a 32-7 win over Campbell last week. The ground game produced 74 yards on 33 attempts, but the short fields and massive turnover advantage are more of an outlier.

At 302 yards of total offense per game against a schedule that included national powerhouses St. John Bosco (Calif.) and Saint Frances (Md.), Crawford is a playmaker at times. At other moments, he is a game manager. If Punahou crowds the box, that gives Carvalho, younger brother Kaimana Carvalho (58 receptions, 713 yards, three TDs ) and Manulele Ah You (27, 299, one ) more opportunities. The x-factor is Kainoa Carvalho, the 2021 All-State Offensive Player of the Year. If he has his burst back after an early-season ankle injury, very few defenses can contain him.

RED RAIDERS DEFENSE Numbers don't always tell the truth. Campbell outgained Kahuku in total yardage 202-146 last weekend, but the Sabers committed five turnovers. Four picks by Kahuku's trusty secondary, including a state-record three pick-6s, were the reward for a tenacious pass rush (eight sacks ).

The big sack total isn't the norm for Kahuku, which is disciplined, versatile and patient. In some ways, the back nine are interchangeable thanks to immense athleticism and preparation—much like classic Kahuku defenses of yesteryear. Liona Lefau is a master chess piece—stuffing the run, blitzing or covering elite receivers.

With Leonard Ah You coming off the edge, it will be imperative for Punahou to pick up any loose ends, so to speak. Most offenses have not succeeded at this. Cornerbacks Shaun Niu Jr. and Aiden Manutai have been elite, putting more pressure on opposing QBs. That also makes life easier for safety Brock Fonoimoana, a classic, explosive playmaker with perhaps the best vision in the secondary.

While Lefau and Ah You have been at the forefront during the title run of 2021 and this year's campaign, Kahuku continues to deploy run-stopping, pass-rushing weapons. Stanley Raass was a welcome addition in the trenches. Maximum Fonoimoana, brother of Brock, has become a lethal weapon.

With only one starting defender above 215 pounds, Kahuku's defensive unit finds a way to win. Saint Frances came to the North Shore with every intention of bulldozing its way to victory, but was unable to. The Panthers and their behemoths managed just 88 rushing yards on 29 attempts. What are the chances of Punahou and record-breaking RB Ala 'i Williams doing more ?

RED RAIDERS SPECIAL TEAMS Madden Soliai has six punt blocks in 13 games and may be the best punt blocker in the state. The freshman—and son of defensive coordinator Sola Soliai—has studied the science of his craft for most of his young life. He gives an already amply talented Kahuku kicking game that extra ace in the hole. The return of Kainoa Carvalho gives Kahuku an accurate kicker, and their best punt and kickoff returner. He is also a master of a variety of kickoff techniques.

Kahuku's versatility is unmatched. Whether it is Leonard Ah You, Brock Fonoimoana or Zayden Mariteragi handling PAT kicks, or Manulele Ah You or Fonoimoana returning kicks for TDs, this is perhaps the only team that could handle a lengthy absence by one of its best players, Kaikai Carvalho.