In the bittersweet, painful end, the Ironmen of Kaiser could not have done much more.
At 4-3 in league play, Kaiser was the higher seed in its OIA Division I playoff matchup with Campbell (1-6), but this was not the same Sabers team that began the season with big holes to fill. A rejuvenated, healthy and, as of now, well-seasoned Campbell squad jumped out to a 21-7 lead and eked out a 27-21 win on Saturday at Kaiser Stadium.
It was confirmation for the Sabers, a reward for continuing to believe after all those OIA Blue losses piled up. Linebacker Nicholas Kernaghan (6-2, 210) was one of several playmakers on the defensive side, returning an interception 49 yards for a TD and blocking a field-goal try by the Cougars. Junior QB Kawika Ulufale played perhaps his finest game, slipping away from a tenacious pass rush to keep Saber drives moving forward.
Coach Amosa Amosa had preached again and again to his young team about the virtue of teamwork and patience.
“I’m so proud of how our boys reacted today. We went up, Kaiser tied things up and we finished the game,” Amosa said. ”
That approach, and looking at the playoffs as a new second season, worked out well. Back to full health, or close to it, Terell Johnson (6-0, 200) rushed for 100 yards. Twenty-eight of those yards came during Campbell’s 16-play, 80-yard, game-winning drive. The 7-minute, 26-second march broke a 21-all tie with just over 3 minutes left in the game.
“Our coaches said to keep our heads up and keep our motors going. We knew if we slowed up, we could make a mistake really easily. So we had to just keep fighting and pushing forward until the clock hit :00,” Johnson said.
In an age of hurry-up offenses, it was novel to see an old-school drive that put the spotlight on the big boys up front.
“It was good for us to showcase that. I know I have tough guys up front who are willing to block whoever’s in their way,” Johnson said, crediting a unit that includes Syrus Markham-Faumui (6-0, 260), Atapana Amosa (6-2, 315), Keoni Kaufusi (6-2, 250), Micah Ah-Soon-See (6-0, 250) and Viniu Westbrooks (6-1, 270).
“They seemed energized and they wanted to close out and get the win,” Johnson added.
Amosa and his staff were glad to see Johnson healthy and producing at a high level.
“Tonight was nice to see the old T.J. again,” Amosa said.
It just about broke the hearts of the Cougars, who got the ball back twice in the final 3 minutes, but couldn’t muster a drive. They missed Nic Tom, arguably the best breakaway threat at the quarterback position in the OIA. Tom suffered a dislocated hip during the first half. To that point, he had already rushed for 63 yards on just seven carries and passed for 22 yards.
This is a team that lost its starting QB the day before fall camp started when he transferred out. That pressed Tom, a starting cornerback and kick returner, into extra duty.
With Tom out, the Cougars almost miraculously found a way to rally from 14 points down to the the game at 21 before halftime. Stud LB Parker Higgins showed his chops at tailback, rolling around left end for a 12-yard TD. Defensive end Chance Kalaugher, with his rag-doll sacks, was tremendous. His sack and fumble recovery in the end zone tied the game with 3 minutes to go in the half. But the Cougars aren’t deep, and with a number of players like Michael Eletise and Higgins expending energy on both sides of the ball, it was tough to match the deeper Sabers.
Jensen McDaniel’s amazing prep career came to a close. He rushed for 90 yards on 21 carries against a swarming Sabers defense, breaking off runs of at least 10 yards only twice. Campbell never let him out of their sights; he had six receptions for just 13 yards.
He ran heavy and hard behind the left side, where Eletise, the state’s premier recruit, delivered money block after money block. But the Sabers eventually adjusted, and with Tom’s zone-read threat no longer a factor, the lanes were filled with Campbell’s white jerseys.
From the start, Ulufale utilized his many weapons. He targeted six different pass catchers in the first half and completed 13 of his 16 attempts for 161 yards without a pick. The former St. Francis slinger finished with 239 passing yards on 21-for-28 accuracy with three TDs and one pick. Noah Esprecion continued his standout season with nine receptions for 135 yards and a TD.
In the end, though, it was the Sabers commitment to balance, to grind away in the trenches with the game on the line. For the night, the Sabers ran the ball 35 times for a net 108 rushing yards.
“I put it in their hands. I said, ‘Guys, it’s up to you. You guys have to get it done and execute,’ ” Amosa said.
It took a veteran head coach who grew up in those trenches before going on to a stellar career at the University of Hawaii. He challenged his offensive line to get the job done, and now the Sabers are in position to face Farrington in the D-I quarterfinals.
Not bad for a team that was 0-5 at one point.
“What I’m most proud of is how the boys come in every Monday,” Amosa said. “We look at our film. We see the mistakes that we made, the plays that made a big impact. I really give them credit. We don’t have a field, so we go to a park. Every week I try to find things to get them going and to talk to them about. I’m really inspired by their commitment and sacrifice. 0-8 or 8-0, we do the same thing every day.”