HHSAA Football
Rams readied for Wildcats, raucous atmosphere in 2015


Sat, Nov 14, 2015 @ Roosevelt [ 5:00 pm ]

Final 1 2 3 4 T
KONA(11-2-0) 19 7 7 1346
RAD(13-0-0) 21 15 12 048
Quintin Iriarte 288 yd 3 TD
Austin Ewing 272 yd 5 TD
Kodi Ongory-Mathias 176 yd 1 TD
Algene Kelekolio 44 yd 1 TD
Thomas Reid 135 yd 1 TD
Reyson Ching 84 yd 1 TD

Radford football coach Fred Salanoa isn't in the business of prognostication, but he could see this one coming.

As his Rams relished their 2015 league title — their second in a four-year span — Salanoa was doing his homework on their next opponent, one that he knew would prove to be a formidable one in Konawaena.

The Wildcats secured a spot in the semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Division II State Championships with a 42-33 win over Damien in the tournament's first round. It was a game that Salanoa took in first-hand — along with about a thousand-plus, mostly-Konawaena fans.

"First of all, that might have been the first time I've been out there in-person," Salanoa said of Julian R. Yates Field in Kealakekua.

He painted a picture of the scene: "It was jam-packed. We had to park a mile away and it seemed like we were walking forever, but just the atmosphere was great. Everything from the coqui frogs with the night games, the pop-up tents at the top of the stadium with the uncles and aunties gathering in full support of the team, that really stuck out. You know they have something going good up there."

And that was just the crowd.

On the gridiron, Konawaena jumped out to a 36-6 lead by halftime en route to a 42-33 victory to turn back the Monarchs.

The Wildcats' win set-up the semifinal showdown against the Rams, who enjoyed an opening-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the six-team tournament.

"Byes sometimes can go both ways, negative or positive, (but) for us that was our 11th game and so we were able to recuperate," said Salanoa. Radford's bye during the regular season was filled by a non-league game on the mainland at Mount Tahoma (Washington).

"Because of that we played straight games all the way through and so any time off that we could have from putting ourselves through a full game was definitely probably beneficial to our team."

But before he could talk X's and O's with his players, it was imperative to Salanoa to convey what kind of an atmosphere they could expect by the time the 5 o'clock kickoff rolled around that Saturday.

This, despite the fact that the game would be played on Oahu, at Roosevelt's Ticky Vasconcellos Stadium.

"I really had to stress that part and make sure that our student-athletes at Radford understood that as we prepared for them," Salanoa said. "Yes, we can watch video, yes, we can game plan, but just like taking a team into Alabama's stadium, or ‘The Swamp' at Florida, or ‘The Bounce House' at Central Florida, it's just a different atmosphere and it's very, very different if you haven't been playing in that environment," Salanoa said.

Fan support aside, the Wildcats showed Salanoa all the intangibles of a successful program, both in-person and on tape.

"They were very scrappy and you could tell that they were a close-knit team. When things didn't go their way, nobody got down. They were still giving each other high-fives, patting each other on the rear and they were getting each other going," he said. "They were going to represent their community and their island to the best of their abilities and we were going to have to make sure that we took that on as well; we had to understand what kind of atmosphere and what kind of bunch of kids they are."

Salanoa's bunch carried a perfect 11-0 record into the Konawaena game, but as he reminded them, it only came about with a ‘one-week-at-a-time' approach.

"I think it was important that we talked about doing everything in your ability to extend the season by one game — we talked about that all year — and our motto that year was, ‘Hard work pays off;' we had that on our shirts," he said. "We had set a goal as a team to get to the very end and hold the trophy, but we definitely focused week by week and obviously we got to that point and we just needed to make sure that we focused on Konawaena and took care of that."

The Wildcats did not make it easy.

Although they fumbled on the game's first play from scrimmage, Radford returned the favor on its first snap and the loose ball was picked-up by Konawaena's Jeremiah Casuga-Llanes, who returned it 66 yards for a touchdown.

Salanoa attributed the back-to-back turnovers on nerves and said that the scoop-and-score served as a wake-up call for his team.

"I touched on the magnitude of the game and often young and inexperienced teenagers will get caught up in the moment sometimes and it takes something catastrophic or unusual to catch someone's attention and wake-up. … Coming into the game we were coasting, we were riding a high and everything was going good for us. We were coming off the Kaimuki win and then coming off the bye week, we were feeling okay about ourselves and not paying attention to little things and then that happens, so yeah, it was definitely a wake-up call for the whole team," Salanoa expressed.

The teams exchanged scores in a back-and-forth first quarter that saw them combine for 40 points.

But the Rams were able to make some stops on defense and scored a string of 22 straight points — capped by Jordan Walker's 47-yard fumble return for a score — to open up a 36-19 lead with about five minutes left in the first half.

Salanoa said of the senior linebacker: "Jordan played a major role in our defense all year long and for him to be able to do that in that situation, at that point in time was big."

Radford took a 36-26 lead into halftime.

Salanoa said of his talk at the break: "I believe we were up by 10 (points), which is not a lot, especially when dealing with a quarterback like Austin Ewing on the other team. We knew how explosive that offense is and how quickly they can score and so I just tried to keep the kids calm and the biggest thing was encouraging them to finish the game and extend our season by one game."

Kodi Ongory-Mathias scored on a 27-yard run midway through the third quarter to make it a 16-point cushion. The senior running back — part of a two-headed backfield along with two-way standout Ace Faumui — factored largely into the Rams' game plan against the Wildcats.

Again, it went back to keeping the ball out of the hands of Ewing, Konawaena's prolific gunslinger at quarterback, who finished that season with 2,290 passing yards and 31 touchdowns through the air against just six interceptions.

"He's explosive as an individual player and that makes that offensive explosive," said Salanoa. "He's got a rifle of an arm, he could deliver the ball on-point with a quick delivery and he could make things happen with his feet."

As a former quarterback himself, Salanoa could appreciate all Ewing's tools in the bag, so to speak.

"I do remember that he's a point guard in basketball and one of the better basketball players on the Big Island if not the state, so just the dynamic of being able to play basketball, be a point guard and dish it out and know how to handle himself in close quarters and pressure situations, and then also watching him on the football field and how he handled himself there, I knew we had to find a way to slow down the game and we just felt it was so, so important to keep Kona's offense off the field. As much as we like to play uptempo, we wanted to slow the game down a little bit and keep the ball away from him as much as possible," Salanoa explained.

Ongori-Mathias certainly did his part with 176 yards on 26 carries, both season-high marks. The former QB in Salanoa knows enough to recognize the hogs up front for that accomplishment.

"We don't always have the biggest o-line, but I just think our o-line coaches — all of our coaches, the entire staff — did an awesome job in game planning and getting these kids prepared week-in and week-out," said Salanoa, whose team held the ball for 34-plus minutes and limited the Wildcats to less than 14 minutes of possession time.

Radford stretched its lead to 46-33 after three quarters, but Konawaena found the end zone twice in the fourth quarter and were within a failed two-point conversion to tying things up with 6:40 left in the game.

But the Rams defense held the Wildcats scoreless the rest of the way and Radford escape with a narrow victory.

A balanced offensive attack (288 passing yards, 240 rushing) and an opportunistic defense (four total takeaways) helped the Rams overcome 272 yards through the air and five TD passes by Ewing. Walker registered two of his team's three fumble recoveries.

"I definitely would have to give credit to not only Jordan, but that whole group of guys on defense — Jordan Walker, Dillon Sunday, David Faletoi, Deyshon Slade, Sipa Leafa, Ben Leafa — we had a bunch of guys on defense that was pretty stout and did their job, which allowed different players at different times to make big-time plays," Salanoa said.

Konawaena finished with 324 yards of total offense. Although the Wildcats allowed 48 points by the Rams, their defense managed to come up with 10 tackles for loss, including two sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

"Everybody uses the word scrappy to describe them and that's what they were. They just have a never-say-die attitude and then they're also well-coached — they were doing some things that enabled them to stay in the game, or to make big plays in certain situations — but the biggest thing was they were scrappy and they were gonna come with, hit you in the mouth and continue to play as hard as they can to prove a point that they play good football on the Big Island," Salanoa noted.

In the state championship game against top-seeded and fellow-unbeaten Kapaa just six days later, Radford rallied from a 10-0 first-half deficit on its way to a 30-16 win.

"It started from the top with our admin, our (athletic director), our coaches, our support staff, trainers, ball boy — whatever it was, we weren't gonna let that game or that season end with an L, but being down 10-0 early, I'm like, ‘Oh, my gosh,' " Salanoa recalled.

But the Rams defense paved the path to victory once more. In the end, the Warriors were held to a mere 39 yards of total offense (86 passing, minus-47 rushing) and turned it over three times, including a 26-yard fumble return for TD by Sunday.

"All I can say is defense wins championships and as much as everyone, I guess, refers or acknowledges me with an offensive mind or having played QB, I'm actually a defensive guy; defense is way more important to me and it's not hard for me to say that because I really, truly believe if you have a tough defense that can carry a team to a championship and allow them to win one," Salanoa expressed.

The third time proved to be a charm for Salanoa and the Rams, who reached the D2 state final twice before — in 2005 and 2008 — only to be denied by Iolani both times.

"Those defeats against Iolani didn't go without lessons being learned on our end," Salanoa said. "From that we were able to regroup, to re-tweak, re-evaluate ourselves as coach, for me as head coach of the team — which way do we want our program to go and how do we make those adjustments? — so it was always a learning situation from those close calls and I appreciate it and 'til today I appreciate the relationship that I have with (Iolani) coach Wendell Look."

Radford completed the season with an unblemished 13-0 record, which was capped off by its first state championship in school history (although it did beat Saint Louis in the 1981 Oahu Prep Bowl under legendary coach John Velasco, for whom the school's on-campus stadium is named after).

"To go the whole season and not be on the losing end of the stick is a pretty tough task to do, I don't care whatever division it is — I don't care if it's Pop Warner — so for me that was probably the most gratifying thing, not necessarily for me because I really don't care as far as win-loss records as a coach, but to see the young men put in all that hard work and dedication and commitment — like every other team is doing — but to reap the benefits and rewards of that season unblemished, undefeated, sometimes you're at a loss for words as far as how to explain that or how to really relay that to anyone," Salanoa said.

The lessons of hard work, discipline and sacrifice required of his players to attain that success on the football field directly translates to real life, Salanoa believes.

"It was a great feeling to know that it didn't come easy and that these guys put in a lot of work to accomplish that task and to me, in my opinion, no one can take that away from them, but I think the best part about it is they will be able to carry those experiences into life. Whether they're working, in higher education, studying for a test, trying to get into a career field, they're gonna know what it takes to accomplish something of that magnitude."

The Rams were well-represented in the All-Hawaii selections that were released two weeks after the state championship. Nine different players were named to the first or second teams, headlined by Faumui and Walker, who garnered D2 Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors, respectively.

"Those were two players that definitely deserved the recognition and obviously accepted it on behalf of the team. Definitely two guys that were responsible for being able to be a piece of our championship run," said Salanoa, who stepped down at the end of the 2015 season.

He took a job as offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington — where he starred in the late 1990's — but resigned from that post before he coached a single game. Salanoa cited a desire to return to the 50th state and spend more time with his family, including his seven daughters.

"You could say it was hard. I had a few sleepless nights as I got closer to the end, but at the end of the day it was actually an easy decision because of my family … I had to find a way to let my daughters know that they are number one in my life," he explained.

It wasn't long after Salanoa returned to Hawaii that he also returned to the sidelines. He had stints as an assistant at Punahou and Kamehameha before he was tabbed as head coach of his alma mater prior in spring of 2019.

"It all paid off," Salanoa said of his circuitous route back to Radford, where he is a resource teacher.

"I'm back at Radford and it feels good, feels like home. Everyone says you can go away, but you can always return home and this is my home and everybody knows it," he said. "I'm glad to be back; this is where I belong."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].



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