Ninth-Grade QB Elijah Mendoza Guides Waipahu Into D-I Football State Tournament
By: Nick Abramo
When No. 13 stepped out to play quarterback for Waipahu in the OIA Division I championship game, it was a surprise to everybody not associated with the Marauders.
The real eye-opener was yet to come for Elijah Mendoza, a freshman, who walked on to the field for his first varsity game to lead a bunch of boys one, two and three years older than him. Talk about untested. Talk about butterflies.
“For every freshman going out there, you should be nervous,” Mendoza told Hawaii Sports Radio Network on Wednesday before practice in preparation for Friday’s D-I first-round game at home against Kapaa (5-3) in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships. “But you shouldn’t be scared. Once you play in the game, you get used to it over time and everything slows down. Playing at that high level, I knew I had to be more disciplined and keep that mind-set of getting the ball out quick.”
The results were absolutely fantastic. Even though the Marauders (9-1) fell behind by 17 points against Aiea, they didn’t buckle and fought back to win 38-30 at the Mililani High field on Oct. 29 for the school’s first league title since 2018.
Personally, Mendoza made the step up to varsity a memorable one, completing 29 of 45 passes for 262 yards and four touchdowns.
A lesser prepared player, certainly, may not have gotten Waipahu to this particular promised land.
“He has a great knowledge of the game,” Marauders coach Bryson Carvalho said. “Eli has a willingness to learn. We meet at 3:30 every day, breaking down film. Some of the older kids fall asleep and think it’s the boring part. It’s a long process and you replay and replay. He’s just so willing to learn. A true football player, to me, has to enjoy that part.”
When junior starting QB Joshua Manu, who had a great season going, went down with a season-ending injury in a 59-24 win over Roosevelt on Sept. 23, Carvalho moved star receiver/kick returner/safety Liatama Uiliata to QB.
With Uiliata leading the offense, Waipahu didn’t miss a beat. However, they were not getting the most out of the versatile multi-position player.
And then some real serendipity happened for Carvalho and the Marauders. The coach knew Mendoza, who had played three JV games but was out with a fractured kneecap, was capable to step in if healthy.
“Essentially, Eli played three JV games, which is not a lot of experience,” Carvalho said. “We brought him up to varsity one week when we thought JJ (Manu) was sick and didn’t know if he was going to play. It ended up being just a cold, so Eli went back down to JV, where he wasn’t fully the starter and really worked to earn that spot. Then, when he got hurt, we thought he may be out for the season, but we were never sure. So I had that (a possible move back up to varsity for Mendoza) in his ear.”
While preparing for a first-round OIA playoff game against Farrington on Oct. 21, Carvalho found out from Mendoza that he was cleared to run with full pads but no contact.
“On Monday, the (next) week of the championship game, I was scheming two different game plans, one with Eli and one with Tama at QB, but because of the faith I had, I was riding more on what we could do with Eli,” Carvalho said. “At midday, he texted me that he was cleared. I told Tama, who said, ‘Let’s go coach. Let’s do this.’ It turned out to be quite a comeback story for Eli and now we’re not shooting down Tama’s versatility.”
One big aspect of Mendoza’s learning curve has been getting used to the speed of the varsity level. But Carvalho had that covered by making practice extra difficult for the kid.
“Practice was harsh on me,” Mendoza said. “It was really fast.”
Added Carvalho: “In JV and youth football, you can get away with a lot more and throw the ball to a receiver if he is open. In varsity, you have to see where he is going to get and then throw it on his break. You can’t wait and look at the break. So I really got on him (about that). I’ve been real hard on him.” After seeing the potent Aiea defense in the title game, Mendoza knows there’s a lot of room for growth. And he’ll get three years to do just that before graduating.
“I think I did all right for my first game in vars,” he said. “Still, I think I could have gotten the ball out faster and more crisper. I was floating balls on the short routes and I know I can be faster there. And, when I was running and scrambling, I was a little too upright.”
Uiliata, who is a candidate for state offensive player of the year honors, spoke to Mendoza before the big test.
“He came up to me and told me to ball out, to trust in the team, trust in the receivers, trust in everybody,” Mendoza said.
And the freshman added his thoughts about the next game against the Warriors from the Garden Island who moved up to D-I this season after winning the D-II state title a year ago.
“We cannot let our guard down,” Mendoza said. “Gotta keep working. Kapaa is going to be a tough team and we’ve all told each other that we have to be ready for them.”
Click here to purchase tickets for the 2022 First Hawaiian Bank State Football Championships.
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