90 percent inexperienced, Punahou is 100 percent clutch for win

Ean Kamau-Waikiki (3) celebrates prematurely as the football squirts loose from teammate Astin Hange. Kamau-Waikiki caught the ball for Punahou's go-ahead touchdown in a 33-28 win over Kamehameha. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser.

So many new names, brilliant moments and yet, no, none quite as pristine as John-Keawe Sagapolutele.

The junior brought something new to the turf at Aloha Stadium after nearly two years without an official high school game. The run threat. Sagapolutele passed for 381 yards and three touchdowns, completing 28 of his 41 attempts without an interception as Punahou rallied for a thrilling 33-28 win over Kamehameha on Friday night to open the ILH regular season.

“I just feel like it was a dog fight. I had to make sure we came out with the win. It’s been awhile, but I feel like I could’ve done better than what I did. I did all right. Big shout out to the O-linemen for giving me time in the pocket,” Sagapolutele said. “We’re really grateful for the victory. Our team really showed up. We’ve been working hard all offseason. It’s only going to get harder from here.”

Kamehameha did all it could to slow the smooth right-hander, and for a good stretch of the second half, the team in white and navy blue rallied with 18 unanswered points to take the lead. Sagapolutele had back-to-back three-and-out series for the one and only time in the game during that pivotal third quarter.

The rest of the night, he was merely magical. Twice, he picked up first downs with his legs. With Punahou often operating in five- and four-wide sets, Kamehameha’s defense was stretched.

“One thing now compared to two years ago is his ability to extend plays with his feet and get first downs. It makes it hard with Punahou’s offense, the way they stretch you way out. He keeps the chains moving,” Kamehameha coach Abu Ma‘afala said. “He made some pretty spectacular plays with his guys.”

The Punahou quarterback has learned since 2019.

“I just think I was able to build my confidence over the years, just put my head down and run if I need to. Since my freshman year, I’ve seen many opportunities where I could’ve taken off, but I didn’t. This game, I wanted to take advantage of the holes that were there and get first downs,” he said.

Sagapolutele was one of the most impressive freshmen in recent memory back in 2019 when he replaced injured Hugh Brady and sparked the Buffanblu to a 10-2 record. Now a junior, he has made the jump to a new level, which doesn’t surprise anyone at Punahou.

“He’s one of our leaders. We’ll ride with our leaders’ hearts,” Buffanblu coach Nate Kia said after his first game as a varsity head coach. “John, Akamu (Moeava), Teva (Tafiti) and our offensive line. Our defense. It was a full team effort and John was definitely a leader today. We trust him and when we needed him, he delivered.”

The numbers are astronomical, but the way Sagapolutele surgically carved a strong Kamehameha defensive unit was, well, Tua-esque.

“He’s consistent for us. He’s become more consistent at practice, so what we see from him in the game, we expect that,” Kia said. “To make good plays and make good decisions and continue to get better. The opponents get better, too. It’s a necessity for our team to get better each week whether it’s John or any of our players.”

There were plenty of touches for Punahou’s playmakers. Sophomore Astin Hange, at 5 feet, 9 inches and 160 pounds, had quite the varsity debut with nine catches for 195 yards, including an 81-yard go route that may have been the most flawless show of offensive clout all night.

“Before we came off the field in the first series, he kept telling me he was going to win the one-on-one. If it’s there, we take it at practice,” Sagapolutele said. “Astin is a really good athlete. This was his first real (varsity) football game, so that’s amazing.”

“It’s not unexpected from what we’ve seen from him with his playmaking ability. Across the board with our skills, we feel we have a good receiving corps that can create plays,” Kia said. “Today was Astin’s turn to make plays. If we call on Ean or anyone else, it’s their turn.”

Ean Kamau-Waikiki, a 5-10, 155-pound junior, hauled in two touchdowns of epic proportions. The first was a 23-yard catch as he dove toward the back line of the end zone for the ball. The second came in the final minute, plucking the football after it ricocheted off his teammate, Hange, near the goal line. That clutch play gave Punahou the lead for good.

“It was really just an alert play. Ean is a heady football player. We’re just grateful he was dialed in,” Kia said.

Sophomore Ala‘i Williams was utilized as a running back and inside receiver, often going in motion from one spot to the other. The Madden-ish use of the skilled pass catcher led to 10 carries for 23 yards and eight receptions for 37 yards. With Kamau-Waikiki (six catches, 78 yards), Noah Macapulay (two, 21) and Peyton Macapulay (two, 31) making clutch grabs in the final moments, Punahou appears to have one of the premier aerial attacks in the state.

Punahou’s defense was tested by Kamehameha’s offensive line and running back Noah Bartley, who rushed for 118 yards and caught six passes for 133 yards, totaling two touchdowns.

“Whoever the running back was, he did a very good job,” Kia said. “He’s a very good runner.”

The Buffanblu defense made enough key plays in the final 12 minutes.

“They played extremely hard. There are some things that we need to improve on. We’ll get an opportunity to work on them before we see (Kamehameha) again. They came up with stops when we needed them. That’s a testament to the grit they have,” Kia said of his defensive unit. “That was good for us to see. With the ebbs and flows of the game, you see the grit the team has. You can correct x’s and o’s, but grit is something we can build on.”

After all this time, with just a couple of spring scrimmages, followed by a few late-July scrimmages, the roster of inexperienced varsity players passed their first test.

“This is as much our first look at them as anything else. We got to see these guys play in real game conditions against a real ILH Open Division opponent. We’ll build on it,” Kia said. “A lot of those things, on both sides, so many correctable things that you would normally scrub out in preseason.”


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