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South Bay Reigns as HS Club NIT Champ

  • 20 May 2019

Photos: Jackie Finlan

This year, the High School Club National Invitational Tournament (NIT) took a different format, which produced championship-worthy matches in the first round. South Bay started its campaign against reigning champion and local favorite United, and ended the two-day event with a final win over Kahuku High School and the NIT trophy.

RELATED: South Bay NIT PreviewPhotos: NIT ChampionshipFull NIT Results

Division I was split into two pools of four, and everyone played three games before the final placing matches. The first round of play pitted the top-two ranked teams in each pool against each other, so South Bay played United in Pool A, and Fallbrook and Kahuku faced each other in Pool B. There was no easing into the competition.

On Friday morning, the scoreboard remained dormant for 18 minutes, but South Bay was winning the possession game. Eventually, Manaia Moala capitalized with a corner try, and No. 8 Mercie Vivao slotted a knockout sideline conversion – which was important.

“Coming into the game, I know we were all in our heads, thinking maybe we couldn’t do it,” Vivao said. “We watched film. We know they’re a strong team, and compared to the teams in southern California, it’s way different.

Photo: Jackie Finlan

“But after that first try, that set the tone for us,” the junior continued. “From there on out, it was pound, pound, pound. Hit them hard.”

South Bay’s defense is oppressive and bursts off the line to force offenses backward. United, however, was able to remain calm even in the retreat, and waited for opportunities to break the line in tight and then build a fast attack out wide. The home side scored on either side of halftime, but the sideline conversions fell short for 10-7 lead.

The Spartans had a scoring opportunity near United’s 22 meter but a penalty halted that drive. United looked to clear its lines but the kicker mistakenly tapped the ball and then kicked to touch, thus setting up a South Bay lineout in United’s end. That was the lift that South Bay needed, and after several beneficial penalties, Siniva Mailo broke the line for the go-ahead try. Flyhalf Puni Skipps converted for the 14-10 lead.

There was still time on the clock, and the game wound down to one more United scrum.

“We needed to keep our defense solid, and that’s exactly what we did,” Vivao recalled the referee’s “last play” announcement. “Starting off, our shifting wasn’t as good as it was at the end of the game, but we came together as a team. That was our focus for the last play: Keep that defense solid.”

South Bay kept that heavy press on to win 14-10, and followed with wins over Wasatch (12-0) and Pleasanton (37-7) to win Pool A and advance to the final.

Pool B was more complicated, as Fallbrook and Kahuku tied 7-7 in their first-round match. After comparable wins in round two, the Pool B victor was to be decided by the third-round point differential. Fallbrook beat Lamorinda 38-14, and Kahuku beat Sacramento 37-0 to advance to the NIT final.

The tournament then relocated to Zions Bank Stadium, a 5,000-seat complex set against beautiful snow-capped mountains and dramatic clouds. Light rain marked the opening 10 minutes and South Bay once again deployed a relentless defense that frustrated Kahuku.

“Our coach, he always says that defense wins game; if they can’t score, then they can’t win,” Vivao quoted coach Myron Mailo. “We actually wanted to put our defense out first, and then our offense was just going to flow. That was our main goal.”

Photo: Jackie Finlan

Aliyah Taufaao kicked off the scoring for a 5-0 lead. As the half wound down, Kahuku disrupted a South Bay lineout, but the Spartans, especially Skipps, did well to regroup. The flyhalf calmly committed the scrambling defense and perfectly timed the pass to Shy Tonumaipea, who tore away for the centered try that Skipps converted, 12-0 into the break.

“We try not to scramble so much but if it does happen, the support is always there,” Vivao said. “That’s our main thing: Even when it gets sloppy we make sure the support is there.”

Kahuku built momentum off of some penalties to kick off the second half, and lock Anna Tufaga capitalized with a dive-over try, 12-5. But then South Bay scored a very important try minutes later. Again, the Spartan offense didn’t panic when the ball hit the ground and worked it to Moala for the corner score, 17-5.

A long injury break followed and when the teams returned to the pitch, it was clear that Kahuku was inspired to play for its fallen teammate. A big line-break from the Raiders’ end was just pulled down inside South Bay’s 22 meter, but the territory eventually set up hooker Kawai Akina for the dive-over try, 17-10.

“When they scored, a couple of our players were hesitant to hop back into the next play,” Vivao reflected on the turning point. “All of us were trying to tell ourselves: Get your heads up. Hit them back on the next play. We just needed to shake off the last play and start that next play.”

The Hawaiians had the momentum and shortly after the restart, the team took an attacking scrum at the 50 meter. But a penalty in the push saw South Bay go quickly, and again, Skipps – TRB’s choice for MVP – manipulated the readjusting defense. The flyhalf split the would-be tacklers and scored a crucial try, 22-10, which held through regulation.

Photo: Jackie Finlan

“I want to give it up to Kahuku. It was a well played game. They’re also a very strong team,” Vivao said immediately after the match. “It was our first time playing them, so it was like a blind side. We did pick up on their mistakes, and that’s what our advantages were.

“It feels amazing,” the No. 8 said of the team’s first NIT title. “Coming off of a loss last year, I know a lot of returners were looking forward to this match. It wouldn’t be possible without our coaches, our parents, our loving supporters. I’m just happy we could take this win home, especially for our families that helped us get here. And especially for our seniors, Jayla [Delia] and Tynesa [Taulua]. This is their last year so I’m happy that we were able to provide them with this win.”

It was a tremendous showing for Kahuku as well, which is actually a single-school program and won that NIT trophy in 2018. Throughout the rest of the tournament, United defeated Fallbrook 38-0 for third; Wasatch beat Lamorinda for fifth, a decision that came down to kicks after a 14-all tie and scoreless overtime; and the 7th game between Sacramento and Pleasanton was not played.

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