By Randy Dela Cruz, Ho'okele Sports Editor
For the second week in a row, the Wahine Koa women’s flag football team faced a stiff challenge from an opponent, but this time the defending champs held on to defeat the Pearl City Paniolos (Hawaiian for cowboys), 32-26, in an Extreme Flag Football League showdown on March 23 at Keehi Lagoon Park in Honolulu.
Coming off their first loss in four seasons, the 5-1 Wahine Koa never trailed against the 3-3 Paniolos, but were forced to beat back a ferocious comeback attempt that saw the Paniolos with a chance to tie or win the game in the final minute of play.
Many of the players from Wahine Koa are active-duty military or armed forces family members based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
The win gave the second-seeded Wahine Koa a first-round bye in the March 29 playoffs, while the Paniolos will most likely be paired against the Air Force Falcons in the opening round.
Although the Wahine Koa struggled against the first-place Wardawgs and the third-place Paniolos to end the regular season, head coach August Young said that he is confident that the ladies would rise to the occasion in the playoffs.
“I believe in this group of girls,” Young announced. “I told the girls that we’ve been here before, there’s nothing new. It’s in their eyes. I know they got this.”
As in all of their victories, the Wahine Koa got on the scoreboard first versus the Paniolos on a touchdown run by Shardae Ingano to make it 6-0.
The touchdown was set up after Wahine Koa defensive back Tiare Lyles, a Navy spouse, picked off Paniolos quarterback Kate Robinson to put Koa in good field position.
Then, after forcing the Paniolos to give up the football on a quick four-and-out, Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 2nd Class Michelle Dannenberger,
Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Hawaii, returned a punt to the house to make it 12-0 in favor of Wahine Koa.
The team then completed a two-point conversion to make it 14-0 midway through the first half.
With Wahine Koa on the verge of turning the game into a runaway, the Paniolos quickly got back in the game when Robinson, benefiting from a good kick return that placed the ball on the Wahine Koa 15-yard line, made short work of the good field position by completing a 10-yard scoring pass to Xascha Diaz on second down.
Wahine Koa responded by finishing off a 38-yard drive on a 14-yard toss from quarterback Dana Hester to Dannenberger for six and a 20-6 lead with only 46 seconds remaining before half-time.
However, with time running out before the break, Robinson threw a pass into the end zone from the Wahine Koa 20-yard line that was broken up by Koa free safety Staff Sgt. Carra Harris, 392nd Intelligence Squadron.
Harris, though, was flagged for pass interference and on the very next play, Robinson made Koa pay for the infraction by connecting with Lauren Lupinetti for a touchdown to draw to within eight points at 20-12 going into intermission.
The Paniolos kept up the pressure in the early minutes of the second half when Robinson hit Bree Locquiao for a catch-and-run that covered 20 yards for another touchdown to make it 20-18.
While clinging to a two-point lead, the Wahine Koa fought back by attacking the outside with sweeps and options to score back-to-back touchdowns in their next two possessions.
The first touchdown came on a 12-yard sweep by Ingano, and the second one came on a pass from Hester to Ingano that made it 32-18.
The Paniolos came back with a touchdown pass from Robinson to Diaz and a two-point conversion from Robinson to Locquiao, but after stopping Wahine Koa on downs with only 20 seconds on the clock, time just ran out for the Paniolos.
“It was just one of those games when the ball doesn’t fall your way,” said Paniolos co-head coach Shandale Graham. “We had opportunities to win the game, but couldn’t capitalize.”
Fellow co-head coach Army Sgt. Marcello Mac-Dade said that the game shows just how far the Paniolos have come since the start of the season and he is looking forward to the playoffs.
“Whatever happened these first six weeks, we just got to let it go,” MacDade said. “Everybody is zero-zero right now. It a new beginning.”
As the teams get ready for the postseason, Young said that he has only one thought on his mind: championship.
“Every game is the last game,” Young said. “There is no tomorrow. I just told the girls to live in the moment. You define yourselves, so don’t let them define you. You want to be a champion? Be a champion.”