Posted with permission, article and pictures, courtesy of Bedrock Sports Hawaii
Story by: Nick Abramo
All weekends during football season are on the “fairly busy” side for a high school sports reporter.
And so, one story I’ve been meaning to get to has taken about three days longer than I wanted. But, here we go, finally.
This one has to do with some Leilehua players. The Mules were in a rough-and-tumble, topsy-turvy battle with Waipahu on Friday night, and there were times when it looked like they would prevail.
They didn’t. The Marauders closed them out with a late touchdown for a 36-25 win.
These three Leilehua Mules played a big role in the team’s close loss to Waipahu on Friday — Dustin Hoeppner-Corales, Camren Flemister and Tapaita Hufanga.
Eh, but we all know that winning isn’t everything. Right? Waipahu’s victory has already been splashed about in the media — Scoring Live, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, ESPN Honolulu and Bedrock Sports Hawaii — and probably more media outlets that I’m leaving out.
Now it’s time for the losers to get their due. And by losers, I don’t mean that in a negative way. This loss was a learning experience, and I expect the Mules to get a great deal out of it.
After speaking with two Leilehua players, it’s obvious that they are winners, just not on the field that night.
As a matter of fact, two more Mules got into the conversation, although they were not going to initially be part of the plan for this postgame discussion.
After the final whistle, coach Mark Kurisu was in a serious talk with his assistants after gathering and talking with his players near midfield, so instead of getting his thoughts on the game, I asked to talk instead to some of his players who were in the process of heading to the locker room.
“Who do you need?” Kurisu asked.
“No. 6 and No. 74.”
“Hey everybody. No. 6 and No. 74 stick around,” he said loudly enough for all to hear.
And they came over.
First up? No. 74, 5-foot-9, 230-pound right guard Tapaita Hufanga.
She’s not the first female football player to be a lineman in Hawaii and probably won’t be the last. It’s just not a very common thing. She played most of the game.
“I’ve been playing football for four or five years,” the Wahiawa resident said. “Sometimes, mentally and physically as a girl, it can be tough, but with the uplifting of my teammates and coaches, especially with my brother, I just get through it and get to play.”
At first, I thought she meant brothers, plural, as in teammates. But a quick look at the roster reveals that No. 72 Paul Hufanga, a junior, and No. 73 Francis Hufanga, a senior, are also offensive linemen.
Contacted via text on Monday, Kurisu verified that Tapaita and Francis are twins and that Francis is also a girl. (The story gets better, right?)
“Pauly (the twins’ younger brother) is a starter and ‘Paita will now compete to start,” Kurisu said. “Francis (not a starter) is injured right now.
“They have older siblings who did well here,” Kurisu continued. “They’re hard workers. They also have jobs. And the family provides food for the players.”
What he was describing, basically, is what could be called “the Mule way” that can be found all the time in many sports in tight-knit Wahiawa..
When Tapaita was asked if she was doing any smashing or if she was the one receiving the smashing on the line of scrimmage against Waipahu, she said, “I didn’t smash anybody by myself. It was really about the support of the O-line that helped me out and protected me.
“We (as a team) did have a lot of up and downs, but I know my teammates and everyone fought really hard and tried our best at our last home game.”
Renovations at Hugh Yoshida Stadium will begin soon, so the Mules will be on the road the rest of the season.
As a junior, Tapaita was on the varsity squad, but did not play due to injury.
The other player I intended to interview was running back and kick returner Camren Flemister, No. 6. He turned in a great performance that included a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that brought Leilehua back to within four points, 29-25, in the fourth quarter.
“We had a chance to take over the game,” said Flemister, who also rushed for 48 yards on nine carries. “Losing is very much disappointing, but we can’t dwell on it. We have the rest of the season to go.”
Halftime adjustments by coaches helped the Mules gain a temporary 19-14 lead in the third quarter after they fell behind 14-0.
“We were down by even more (a 27-27 tie against Kailua) when we played our last game,” he continued. “They (the coaches) wanted us to get our heads into it so we could come out and play. They were frustrated because we were down. We gotta start faster.”
Flemister had some words about Tapaita, too.
“She’s like family,” he said. “She can do everything that the men can do out here so I don’t look at her any different.”
Two other Mules were in the general vicinity at the time — junior wide receiver Dustin Hoeppner-Corales and junior Julian Vargas.
Hoeppner-Corales caught four passes for 109 yards, including two for touchdowns from quarterback Dustin Chow, and, being one of the stars of the game, was a welcome addition to the photo taken for this story.
And what about Vargas, who didn’t play?
“I’ll take one picture with you and one without,” I said, not wanting to overlook someone who is also a valuable member of the team.
With a smile on his face, he declined.
Not knowing what position he played, I asked.
“Quarterback,” he said.
“A backup,” I said.
Well, like his three other teammates that night, he was very respectful and truthful.
“Be ready,” I said. “Your turn might be coming.”
These Mules lost that night, but they put up a mean fight. Knowing what kind of dedicated people they have over there in Wahiawa, I expect they’ll be showing up ready to give it all they have throughout the whole season.