Cal Lee doesn’t have a lot of quick answers, if any, about many of the things that teenagers care about.
Favorite movie? Pause.
“I just don’t have the time for that,” he explains.
Favorite TV show? Pause.
“You know how old I am? I gotta think way back,” Lee said before practice on Wednesday afternoon. “These are tough ones. Like taking the SAT. I like Family Feud.”
For many of the Crusaders, there is no off-field hobby. There is schoolwork. There is training. There is football. It’s true, for the most part, that Lee and his brother Ron, and the rest of the staff at Saint Louis is living and breathing the sport much as they have for most of their lives. And no more so just 48 hours from their biggest challenge of the season.
Saint Louis, seeded second in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships, will take on unbeaten, top-seeded Kahuku on Friday night at Aloha Stadium. There’s some talk of a crowd possibly more than 30,000 for the title game — which would be a tournament record.
But for the Crusaders, it is business as usual. After winning eight of nine games — almost all against Top 10 teams — they are relatively healthy following last week’s 56-30 win over defending champion Mililani.
“It’s my dream come true,” offensive lineman Nate Herbig said. “When I used to play for Kauai, we played Kaiser in the (Division II) state championship and we lost. That was one of the worst feelings for me. Now, to be part of this brotherhood, and with all my brothers, we worked hard and we deserve to be here. I’m just excited for Friday night to come.”
They’ve already gotten a boost with the return of linebacker Jordan Loveni Iosefa. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound senior sat out the past two games due to an ejection and automatic suspension. Iosefa, a commit to USC, “never complained once,” said Cal Lee, who also coordinates the defense.
Like Iosefa, Lee played linebacker in his day. Like Lee, Iosefa was there on the sideline last week, doing all he could for his teammates. It kept Iosefa busy, kept his mind off having to sit out. Like a player-coach, he helped his linemen and ‘backers on alignments and slight adjustments during the game.
“It was a humbling experience, I can say. It gave me time to see the game from the coaches’ perspective and what I have to do to be a better leader, to help my team improve,” said Iosefa, whose voice was worn out by night’s end. “Our team really stepped up, especially on offense. Our defense did their job and gave the ball back to Tua (Tagovailoa). For those two weeks (going into the game), we did a lot of drills, a lot of turnover drills.”
The feeling of not being able to suit up is something that may fuel Iosefa in Friday’s championship game. Saint Louis already had quite a physical performance against Mililani, knocking quarterback McKenzie Milton out with a reinjured throwing shoulder. Iosefa hopes his Crusaders can minimize errors, particularly late hits.
“It’s a physical game, but personal fouls are immature plays, and that’s on us. You’re costing our team 15 yards and it affects us. It shows,” Iosefa said.
The Crusaders had, perhaps, their best defensive game of the year despite the absence of Iosefa. With him back, they have even more size, speed and physicality to deal with Kahuku’s incredibly powerful smashmouth attack.
“Coach Cal always tells us and preaches, ‘Next man up,'” said Herbig, a 6-foot-4, 335-pound commit to Stanford. “Anson (Levi) and Jay Smalley, everybody stepped up and made big-time contributions. We got seven turnovers. Jordan is a phenomenal player, but we’ve always told each other we’re all brothers, we all work just as hard as each other. If I go down, I expect the next guy to do my job.”
Game time is closing in.
“It’s becoming real,” Iosefa said. “This is going to be our last practice with pads, if you think about it. You go 110 percent every day, pushing ourselves and making sure it’s a habit on every play, so it can be 110 percent in the game.”
For Lee, after decades of football success, one title after another, the 2015 campaign is about this group. The one that has risen to the top in the second year of the Lee brothers’ return to the Saint Louis campus.
Cal Lee may not have been a movie fan over the years, but the people who made a difference in his youth are still at the forefront.
His favorite teacher was Mr. Nakamoto, who taught AP English at Kalani High School during his senior year.
“You could tell someone that’s trying to help you. Not trying to own you, but trying to help you, not only in the classroom, but outside the classroom,” Lee said.
The Crusaders could say the same about their coaches. Lee has never forgotten the compelling influence of his parents.
“They always said, ‘Do the right thing.’ To me, my dad (Thomas Lee) was the best coach alive. He coached us in everything. He was a helluva coach. He never yelled, screamed. Never criticized a coach coaching us. Very supportive. Took us to practice, took us to games.”
Those early memories are still fresh. They molded the winningest high school football coach in Hawaii history.
“He made us think about the game itself. When I was playing baseball, he would tell me, ‘You’ve got to think of the game when the ball is hit to you. It’s so true. You can’t wait until the ball is hit to you,” Lee recalled of those early years as an infielder and catcher. “At a young age, he had us think about things that will happen before they happen. He was a great, great man.”
The older, wiser Cal Lee hasn’t lost any intensity. Never compromised priorities. If anything, Lee has been less tolerant of laziness on or off the field. Nipping problems in the bud, he said last year, is something that saves time and energy over the long haul. Something he picked up on during his years at the University of Hawaii under then-head coach June Jones. He’s happy that this senior class has set the bar accordingly.
“This group, I think they finally got it. When you start ’em off. You’ve got to train them and get them to buy into what you’re doing. It took a little bit of time. It shows in the results, they work harder and harder,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to do, not just show up. Going about taking care of business. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. You’ve got to prepare.”