A fall without high school football in Hawaii came and went, but Rod York and his Mililani program never lost relevance.
On Wednesday, a pair of Trojan seniors signed letters of intent with FBS schools in Fatu Iosefa (California) and Sonny Semeatu (Hawaii). Iosefa and Semeatu’s signings were preceded by a college football regular season that saw former Trojans continue to make waves across the country in UCF quarterbacks Dillon Gabriel and McKenzie Milton, Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau and USC running back Vavae Malepeai.
“Just proud of them, proud of their families and just so happy for them,” said York, who has been the head coach at Mililani for over a decade.
Iosefa and Semeatu’s signings came on the heels of Muasau making the All-Mountain West conference first team as a linebacker on Tuesday. Muasau was UH’s only representative on the first team. The day before he was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week for his 18-tackle performance in a 38-21 win against UNLV on Dec. 12, becoming the first ‘Bow to earn DPOW honors since 2016. Muasau’s rise has come as a surprise to many, but not York.
“He’s been doing that all his life at every single level that he’s played at, from Millville through JV, varsity. He’s doing what he normally does. It’s great because it’s a credit to his parents and his coaches at the University of Hawaii, coach (Jacob) Yoro, coach (Todd) Graham, coach (Victor) Santa Cruz and the style of defense they play,” York says. “For Darius, he’s got the speed, he’s got the ability, he’s got the intelligence and he’s got the instincts. Everything’s clicking, everything’s gelling and he’s having a great year and that is a big credit to not only his teammates and his coaches but Darius himself because Darius is a hard worker. He’s a silent assassin.”
Muasau is just a sophomore, so it wasn’t that long ago that he was going through the recruiting process himself. Hawaii was his only Division I FBS offer, a notion that puzzled York.
“Darius was undersized according to a lot of the coaches. It’s always tough because I have a couple guys on the team too who are on the same boat,” York said about the 6-foot-1 Muasau. “They can play, they have the ability but more so they have the mindset, they have the work ethic, especially when only God is looking. Those are the guys you want. I keep telling these coaches you want the guys that are going to be gamechangers, playmakers and great guys in the locker room. These are team-oriented guys. You don’t want guys being negative coming in, crybabies and then they transfer. You want dudes to come in and take care of business on the field and off the field and in the classroom. These are my guys.
“What separates them from everyone else is the mindset. You look at all the Trojans that come out of our program, they’re not just on the team — they lead the team. We’re just proud of these kids and their parents and their families. For Darius, it was tough because it’s like a father trying to brag about his son. Nobody really wants to hear that.”
In Semeatu, York sees another hidden gem.
“Sonny Semeatu is a man-child. He’s naturally gifted. They’re gonna get a playmaker right away,” says York. “They’re gonna get a guy that can get to the QB, whether it’s single or double teams. His motor never stops and he’s extremely strong. He’s still a little raw but he ran a 4.8 electronic (40-yard dash), which means his potential is still greater.”
Perhaps the most prominent player in the national conversation from the Mililani program that played in 2020 was Gabriel, whose 3,353 passing yards are currently the second most in college football. The Knights close their season on Tuesday against BYU at the Boca Raton Bowl. For York, being able to watch Gabriel on national television for a string of Saturdays this fall helped fill the void of not being able to coach the Trojans on the field during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’re either a team guy or you’re not. You either put in the work so you can shine on game day and all the guys we talked about from the Trojans including Dillon, these guys are hard workers. Their GPAs are 3.5 and above. They work hard in the classroom and it transitions over to the field. They’re seven-day-a-week workaholics. You gotta tell them, ‘Rest, let the body rest’ but the mindset of these guys is just on another level. It’s always great to see Dillon out there doing his thing,” York said. “We don’t have high school football when it’s (COVID) time but to wake up on a Saturday, turn on the TV and turning to different stations, watching different guys who graduated from Mililani who are playing big-time football, it’s exciting to see. Sometimes, I just sit back and say, ‘Wow.’
It’s highly likely that Gabriel would have never ended up at UCF if it weren’t for Milton’s persistence in pitching the lefty to Knights head coach Josh Heupel. In an emotional video released on Dec. 3, Milton announced that he would transfer to pursue a starting job elsewhere. Gabriel’s emergence played a part in that as well, as Milton is comfortable in calling the Knights Gabriel’s team.
Since leaving Orlando, Milton has returned home to the islands and has worked out at his old stomping grounds at Mililani before announcing his transfer to Florida State. On Sunday, York and Milton were able to catch up in person with a golf outing followed by dinner.
“Yeah (the video was emotional), but for me personally I don’t live in the past. I look forward to the future and through adversity, we grow stronger. This is just a new transition for McKenzie. I got to talk with him and I’m just so impressed because these are my kids and my students and I’m learning from him. It’s like he’s the adult,” York said with a laugh. “He’s got a great head on his shoulders, he’s got two great parents who support him well in his family and it’s just a different transition. It’s life. Gotta move on, let’s go. His mindset is right and he’s up for the challenge. He’ll be going up to Florida State in early January and he’s going to work. He’s already working over here on the islands over at HOPs (Hawaii Optimum Performance) and Phase 1 and Kenny Patton and he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s just trying to make sure he’s 100 percent. Right now he’s at 85, closer to 90 actually.”
York will also keep an eye on USC this weekend. With Malepeai as their leading rusher, the 5-0 Trojans are set to face Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference championship game on Friday. Other prominent Mililani players include former five-star linebacker Palaie Gaoteote, who is currently in the NCAA transfer portal. Although Iosefa and Semeatu signed on Wednesday, the team’s top 2021 prospect, linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli, will announce his commitment at the 2021 All-American game on Jan. 2.
Despite the success of his former players on the FBS level, York notes that his program has also produced players at other levels of college football and he is just as proud. Whenever high school football re-enters the fold in Hawaii, York will roam the Mililani sidelines under the Friday night lights. Then on Saturday mornings, he’ll tune in on various devices and watch the players he’s connected to in awe.
“Just happy. Happy to see these guys in the grind. Happy to see these guys doing their thing and carving their own path and writing their own story,” York said. “Again, all these guys that we’re talking about, it’s because of their mindset, it’s because of their attitude, it’s because of the work that they put in when only God is looking and the support of their parents and their family and the hard work and determination of these kids that are just making us proud. All day Saturday, just keep watching different guys. USC game on and we see Vae, turn the channel you got Dillon and Kenzie there, it’s just exciting. Then you watch the other guys in the 808 state and it’s just, life is great for these kids and you’re looking forward to the future.”