Red Raiders could shake underdog tag Saturday

For the fourth time, Kauai and Iolani will play Saturday in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament. The Red Raiders are hoping to change the trend of the previous three and notch their first win over the Oahu powerhouse.

While playoffs aren’t always fair in determining a champion, it seems evident that the four remaining schools have been the best Div. II teams all season. Iolani, Kauai, Lahainaluna and Kaiser have the most impressive resumes and deserve to battle it out for the crown.

I’ve been at two of the previous three meetings between Kauai and Iolani. The first was the 2009 Div. II championship game, which Iolani won 24-17 in front of an Aloha Stadium crowd. The second was the 2010 semifinal at Iolani’s home field, when the Raiders shut out the Red Raiders, 14-0.

Each time, Kauai entered the game as a big underdog, but competed well and stayed within striking distance. The difference between the two being just a big play or two.

Sitting in the press boxes for both of those games, it was interesting to listen to other media members or school administrators as the action was unfolding. They weren’t outwardly belittling Kauai, but they were noticeably surprised or taken aback any time Kauai made a big play. There was a sort of matter-of-factness to the attitude in the room and, despite losing both games, the Red Raiders managed to change that attitude by the final whistle each time.

I remember specifically in the 2009 championship game when Trey Shimabukuro was intercepted for a touchdown on the first play, how the energy in the room quickly turned to a feeling that this was going to follow the usual outer-island script and Iolani would waltz to an easy victory.

Then Cameron Largusa, the KIF’s Defensive Player of the Year that season, just started disrupting everything Iolani tried to do. The defensive back finished the day with three interceptions and a fumble recovery, each time prompting “oohs” and “ahhs” from the increasingly surprised eyes from up above.

Is Kauai an underdog again this time around? Absolutely. But expectations may not be quite as one-sided as three previous Iolani matchups. Now 9-0 after last week’s 13-7 quarterfinal win over Pearl City, Kauai actually enters with a better resume. Its three wins over Kapaa during the KIF regular season are all better results than any single win Iolani has on its record.

But this is always the trouble with trying to discredit Iolani. Their overall record is never overwhelming and the strength of schedule is always difficult to assess, yet here they are going for a seventh consecutive Div. II championship.

It’s become sort of like picking against the Miami Heat in the NBA. Everyone wants to poke holes and talk about everyone else who has gotten better or has the right matchup to give them trouble. Then the game starts and anyone who was making those claims realizes that they just picked against LeBron James and none of those arguments seem to matter much anymore.

In this analogy, Iolani coach Wendell Look slides into the LeBron role. In his first of what are now six straight state titles, Look’s Raiders entered the 2007 tournament with just a 4-6 record on the season – including losses to a 5-4 Kalaheo team and a 2-8 Pac-Five squad. What followed was a 35-21 win over Kauai and a 28-21 win over Lahainaluna for the Div. II championship.

Never has an unpredictable team annually become so predictable at the right time. You could have made every case against Iolani for the past six years, but the results have been the same. Even if their record hasn’t been resoundingly impressive, clearly playing in the Oahu Interscholastic Association gives the Raiders a leg up on their postseason opponents.

Yes, Kauai has the better wins in 2013, but they can’t say they’ve lined up against Punahou, against Saint Louis, against Kamehameha.

Until we see a reason to think otherwise – and that reason must come in the postseason – Iolani will be a favorite against Kauai. But being a favorite means very little once the whistle blows. Maybe this is the year those collective “oohs” and “ahhs” are enough to flip the script of this Iolani-Kauai rivalry.

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