For all of the big stars playing in Friday’s Aloha Football Classic, it is the lesser-known talents who have the most to gain.
When Bishop Gorman and Saint Louis face each other on Friday at Aloha Stadium, recruiters will be more than busy watching big uncommitted stars like Jayden de Laura and Darrell Masaniai, it is the under-the-radar players who will be looking to steal the show.
Mililani also hosts Liberty of Nevada on Friday, putting two elite ‘Hawaii vs. Nevada’ matchups against each other. It brings to memory the Akina Classic, which pitted elite teams at Aloha Stadium for nine years running, and Keith Amemiya‘s First Hawaiian Bank Football Classic in 2002.
Amemiya’s event drew Long Beach Poly and De La Salle to beat Kahuku and Saint Louis. The Akina Classic had similar matchups every year.
The highlight of the Akina Classic probably came in 1991, when Cal Lee and his Crusaders stamped themselves as a true national power.
The Crusaders, coming off five straight Prep Bowl victories, were not ranked nationally when they agreed to meet Bakersfield in the feature game of that Akina Classic.
The Drillers brought a No. 7 ranking by the USA Today and a 39-game winning streak into the contest, compared to unranked Saint Louis’ modest 11-game win streak.
The biggest draw was Bakersfield guard Jeff Buckey, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound specimen who boasted of 5.0 speed and a 415-pound bench press. He was ranked as the top offensive lineman in the country, and Cal Lee declared before the game that 6-2, 205 prospect Kone Salave’a would line up against the phenom.
Bakersfield coach Pat Preston wasn’t buying it, expecting Salave’a to take on 6-0, 235-pound center Dave Blevins instead.
Whether it was Salave’a, sophomore Vavae Tata (6-0, 218) or junior Viliami Maumau (6-1, 270) going heads up against Buckey, the Crusaders had the edge with their 3-man front. Saint Louis loaded the box with nine guys and dared the Drillers to pass, taking advantage of their mistakes for a 30-13 victory in front of a late-night crowd of 10,250.
The Crusaders held the run-heavy Drillers to 36 yards and two first downs while running out to a 16-0 first half lead in the victory. Crusaders quarterback Joel Lane went 3-for-4 with 114 yards and two touchdowns and starter Palani Simon was 8-for-21 for 125 yards and another touchdown. Carlin Hernandes caught three passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our (offensive) line’s experienced, but (Saint Louis) did some things up front,” Preston said. “They had a nice nine-man front and brought their ‘backers and stacked everybody … Even if our line blocks well, you can’t block nine guys. It’s too many guys.”
Salave’a, who was relegated to third-team all-state the previous year, used the game to earn himself a scholarship at the University of Hawaii after moving up to first-team all-state in his senior year. Buckey went on to Stanford before making it to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.
California High Sports Magazine publisher Andy Bark called the Crusaders “As good as any high school team I have ever seen.”
On the Honolulu Advertiser’s Pigskin Picks ballot, only unabashed homers Michael Perry and Larry Price picked the Crusaders to win. When all was said and done, Bakersfield dropped out of the USA Today’s rankings, replaced by Saint Louis at No. 19 for the Crusaders’ first ranking in the poll since 1989.
“It’s a compliment,” Lee said. “But if we think about it too much, it can be like a poison.”
The Crusaders rose as high as No. 10 in the poll in 1992. Their highest national ranking is No. 2 by the Reebok/Dick Butkus poll following the 1998 season.
In 1996, No. 10 Capistrano Valley was slated to play the Crusaders in the Akina Classic, but Saint Louis pulled out of the game and the event dwindled without the state’s best team. Capistrano Valley still make the trip, beating Nanakuli 42-21.