In its two years of existence, Kahuku has experienced incredible growth, sent alumni to college on rugby scholarships, and is poised for its third mainland trip to compete in the high school championships. Kahuku can now add a Hawaii state championship to its accolades, a title that arose out of a trying weekend.
The North Shore side carried some injuries into its state semifinal against Kamehameha but managed to take a 15-5 lead into the break. Coach Nusi Tukuafu made some substitutions to rest some starters, and that’s when the opposition struck back.
“The way we were playing, I thought we had the game in control, and reserves could come in at the half and help on defense,” Tukuafu said as he pulled off difference-makers like inside center Taina Scott. “Kamehameha came out firing in the second half. They really wanted it.”
Kamehameha, another single-school team, took advantage of Kahuku’s young wings for two tries, the last of which occurred at the buzzer to tie it up 15-all.
“We missed a lot of scoring opportunities,” Tukuafu said. “Three times we had the overlap out wide and we lost the ball on a knock-on. Little mistakes at the one-meter line cost us the game at full time.”
The semifinal was to be decided on kicks, and Kahuku huddled for one more push.
“They were all bound together, on one knee. Eyes closed, but there were tears. They had their heads bowed, and you could see their lips moving – they were praying,” Tukuafu recounted. “It shouldn’t have come down to this, though.”
During the first round of five kicks, both sides converted two apiece. The teams then had to pick another three players to kick off of the tee, and Kahuku outscored its opponent for the win and berth to the final.
Meanwhile, Hilo Reign defeated Kalihi 30-15 in the other semifinal and rode that momentum into the title bout. Kahuku was still a little bruised mentally from the semifinal, and the players’ spirits lacked energy.
“They were pretty quiet during warm-ups,” the coach recounted. “And I told them: This is not the time to be quiet. There is no tomorrow in a state championship match. It’s do or die here. We can rest tomorrow, but we need to play today.”
Kahuku was still adjusting to some new personnel on the pitch, and Hilo Reign took control three minutes in with a converted try. That deficit helped snap the silence, and the forward pack began communicating more. Power prop Leka Tia crossed for Kahuku’s first try, and outside center Nohea Uluave – the eventual MVP of the tournament – kicked the extras. The soccer convert then pushed her side’s lead out to 10-7 with the first of her two penalty kicks. Uluave came off the bench this weekend and proved her worth off the boot. She was instrumental in the semifinal kicking duel and is angling for a starting position elsewhere in the backs.
Tighthead prop Jenna Tufaga added a second pack try, and Uluave nailed another difficult penalty for the 18-7 lead. That cushion gave Kahuku the confidence to play the touchline-to-touchline game in which it flourishes.
Nevertheless, Hilo Reign could not be subdued. The three-time reigning state champion wanted to give its four seniors their fourth consecutive state title, and two tries followed as time wound down. With minutes remaining, the game sat at 18-17 to Kahuku.
“Our flyhalf was the one who kept it together for the whole team,” Tukuafu said of Jess Lessary. “She was in the grind, in all of the rucks, making hit after hit on defense, and urging on the girls, ‘We have this; we can’t let it go.’”
It was only fitting then that Lessary scored the game’s final try during the last two minutes of play, 23-17, sealing the victory.
It was a really emotional game on either side of the ball. Kahuku embraced each other in amazement, reeling from a gut-checking weekend.
“This was the boost we needed,” said Tukuafu, who was named Coach of the Year during the awards ceremony. “After Vegas, some of the players got into their comfort zones. We were playing more like individuals, whereas in this last championship match, we had to pull together as a team.”
The next big test will be single-school nationals in approximately a month. The team will play Kamehameha (which finished third with a 38-5 over Kalihi) before then and look to refine its forwards play – especially offloading execution – tighten up the defense, and let those injured players heal. And then it’s off to St. Charles, Mo., for the national championship – a whole new adventure to cap an already impressive year.