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Kahuku Red Raiders: “New Year, New Team, Different Dynamic”

Thursday, August 4, 2022 | By Nick Abramo

The Kahuku football team’s first splash into the national consciousness came many years ago and was reinvigorated when Sports Illustrated published a story about the Red Raiders in 2017.

That article, entitled “It’s An Island Ting: Kahuku High In Oahu Churns Out NFL Studs Like Schools In Florida and Texas” might end up paling in comparison to what’s coming.

A crew owned by former New York Giants great Michael Strahan was here to get footage of the whole 2021 Red Raiders season for an upcoming documentary called “The Winning Spirit.”

And what football fans in Hawaii — not just the faithful rooters on the North Shore — saw from Kahuku one year ago can only be described as ethereal. It wasn’t just that the Red Raiders went 10-0 one year after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season. It’s more about the essence in which they did it.

Without having seen the documentary, which, according to producer Christine Yoo, is nearly finished with an undetermined air date and channel, it’s highly likely that those spotlights the documentarians used during their work here brilliantly captured the aura of what it means to be a football warrior from Hawaii — especially a proud one from the North Shore — on the hunt for the biggest prize available. 

Chances are that if the documentary is quality work — and there is no reason to doubt that — the whole nation will be watching a behind the scenes look as well as the on-field spectacle of the Red Raiders’ drive to the Open Division state championship, their first since 2015.

They’ll see junior Kainoa Carvalho, a mighty mite receiver and the nephew of coach Sterling Carvalho, finding seams in the opponents’ defenses and dazzling fans all the way to state offensive player of the year honors. They’ll also see junior linebacker Liona Lefau, the eventual state defensive player of the year, stay on his feet despite three defenders draped all over him for the winning touchdown in the 21-14 OIA championship game victory over Mililani.

Kahuku Head Coach Sterling Carvalho

More generally, U.S. football watchers will see Kahuku’s final celebration — a massive North Shore party after a 49-14 win over rival Saint Louis. And that championship game footage is certainly going to have the intimate look of a high school venue — Farrington’s Skippa Diaz Stadium — and not the far-away feel of the cavernous Aloha Stadium, where just about every other top-tier Hawaii high school championship game had been held since 1975.

There’s no question, though, that for coach Carvalho and his boys, 2021’s fantastic ride is in the past.

It’s a new season and the Red Raiders are gearing to do it all over again (sans film crew). The first step is not an easy task, either. Kahuku, the preseason favorite in the OIA Ope, will be playing on its brand-new artificial turf field for the first time Saturday night — a nonleague encounter against ILH Open contender Kamehameha.

And Carvalho was succinct in saying this at the start of a cellphone interview last week:

“To be honest, it’s state championship or bust. Anything less will be a disappointment.”

Like any coach, he’s working on making his team better. But how do you make the 2022 version better than that 2021 squad? Not an easy task, even with loads of returnees and an influx via transfer of experienced players.

There is one way Carvalho is expecting improvement.

“We want to minimize our mistakes,” he said. “We commit a lot of penalties. We’re focused on being disciplined in our craft — like not jumping offsides and taking care of the many small things (or tings, if you will).

And the bond Kahuku had last year will not be automatic this time around.

“New year, new team, different dynamic,” the coach added. “We are working on maintaining the chemistry, continuity and unity with the core players and those coming in and without those who graduated. We’re making sure everybody does their job and remembers that everybody has to have respect for each other, from the best to the worst. Just because you are a senior big dog, you might want to try to flex your muscles a little more when you don’t need to.”

That offensive spark plug otherwise known as Kainoa Carvalho returns in his hard-to-catch, speedster role.

With Jason Mariteragi gone to graduation, senior Waika Crawford steps into the role of first-string quarterback. He was a starter at times last year as well, but settled into more of a backup role.

“I’m excited to see what he can do this year,” Carvalho said. “I’d like to see him do what he did in the regular season against Mililani every game.”

No pressure, of course, but that performance included five touchdown passes in a 55-20 win.

Senior Clyde Taulapapa, a starter who saw extensive action as a junior, is in the lead running back role.

Others to watch on offense include the 6-foot-4, 350-pound Roebuck Rupp and the 6-1, 330-pound Brayden Mailo, two seniors who form the nucleus of the unit up front.

On the defensive side, along from Lefau, returning senior leaders are safety Brock Fonoimoana, cornerbacks Viliamu Toilolo and Chansen Nicodemus-Garcia, and linebacker Leonard Ah You.

In addition, sophomore safety Fale Atuaia is expected to play a big role as are two transfers — senior Shaun Niu from Orem (Utah) and sophomore Aiden Manutai from Mililani.

Carvalho sees big potential in two who play both ways at receiver and defensive back — sophomore Mana Carvalho (Kainoa’s brother who was injured last year) and freshman Madden Soliai.

After the opener against Kamehameha, Kahuku has home games against Waianae (Aug. 20), Leilehua (Aug. 26),  and Punahou (Sept. 3) and an away game at Campbell (Sept. 10) before visiting national power St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, on Sept. 17.

“Our goal is to win the OIA, the state, and, obviously to go undefeated just like last year,” the coach added.

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