No. 1 Saint Louis was seven little points better than No. 2 Punahou on Friday night and so it was no joke when coach Cal Lee said afterward that the Crusaders are fortunate to be where they’re at.
Where they’re at is 36 victories in a row and in prime position to go for a fourth straight Open Division state championship. Had they not kept their composure when the going got super rough in the second half at Aloha Stadium, those streaks would be history.
Instead, Saint Louis pulled out a 21-14 victory for the ILH championship with so much to lose.
The Crusaders’ think tank worked extra hard in instructing the players in crunch time. Lee and his staff have been in these situations before — without crumbling — and they weren’t about to fall apart now, either.
After dominating the first half, Punahou battled back for a 14-all tie in the third quarter, making life intensely difficult.
And that’s where the Saint Louis boys absolutely thrived.
The first big play in the Crusaders’ sprint to the finish came on Punahou’s first possession after the Buffanblu tied it at 14. It was by defensive lineman Stanley McKenzie, who tipped a third-down pass by Buffanblu quarterback John-Keawe Sagapolutele.
Punahou punted. How would Saint Louis respond? Game on the line. It’s go time, right? The Crusaders could have faltered, but they didn’t.
The next gigantic effort came from wide receiver Matt Sykes, who took a Jayden de Laura pass for 31 yards, pushing the ball to the Buffanblu 12.
Then, as time ran out in the third quarter, de Laura went around left end for a 12-yard TD. That was the money play, the one that made the final difference, giving Saint Louis a 21-14 edge.
But there were 12 full minutes left.
The Saint Louis defense was desperate for another stop and so it came to pass. Anthony Sagapolutele, a defensive lineman, stuffed Punahou’s Nathaniel Kia for no gain on a fourth-and-1 from the Saint Louis 41.
That was another quite bright moment in the clutch for the boys from Kalaepohaku. It wasn’t the last.
Linebacker Sonny Masaniai then took center stage in the Crusaders’ hero contest with a sack to halt Punahou on its next drive after it had gotten as far as the Saint Louis 29.
That left 5:06 on the clock. De Laura confidently passed for two first downs, and then with 2:12 to go, the Saint Louis decision-makers had a dilemma. Go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Punahou 41? Or punt?
It was no easy choice. The Crusaders took two timeouts before finally deciding to run a play.
And what a play — a slant pattern to Sykes (like Joe Montana to John Taylor to win the Super Bowl in 1989) that Sykes busted for a 27-yard gain to the Punahou 14.
“I’m not gonna lie,” de Laura said. “I had butterflies on that one. We trusted Matt to put the ball in his hands and he pulled through. Big-time players make big-time plays.”
It was pretty much academic from there. The Crusaders could not get another first down and Punahou took over at its 17 with 8 seconds left. Too late for the Buffanblu.
And now it’s on to the state tournament for Saint Louis (10-0). The Crusaders play Mililani (8-4) in the Open semifinals Nov. 22.
“We play for one another, our family and our coaches,” Saint Louis’ McKenzie said. “Now, we’re going to make sure we win every practice … that’s how you’re going to win every game.”
Added de Laura: “We knew the game wasn’t over after the first half (14-0 lead). They came back and stopped us a couple of times. We told ourselves, you gotta relax and let the game flow. I was kind of worried. Punahou is a great team and you can’t take them lightly. They made some great second-half adjustments and they always play us great.”
Coach Lee was also worried.
“I was worried when I got here (to the stadium),” he said. “We were very fortunate to keep them to two scores. When (they took the momentum), we had to make sure that we make a stop and fortunately we were able to make stops (courtesy of McKenzie and Masaniai).”
As for the play call on that critical fourth down, Lee said, “I’m kind of lucky. I called it, but I figured this was our shot. I liked the play, the pass play. We had a chance and I thank the Lord for making it happen.”
Lee felt comfortable with the ball in de Laura’s hands.
“He can always do other things, can run it and all that (if Sykes wasn’t open),” he said. “These kids know what it takes to win a game. It’s four quarters and all that stuff. You can be up big and things don’t go right. Nonetheless, they hung in there and we’re fortunate to be where we’re at.”
Punahou was trying to get back to the state tournament for the first time since 2014.
“It went down to the wire,” Buffanblu coach Kale Ane said. “That’s all we can ask. We had chances and were hurt by key penalties. Saint Louis is a great team. We had to be near perfect to beat them. I’m disappointed we didn’t cash in. But the boys played great. I’m proud of them. They found a way to keep the game going.”
Added Punahou running back Vincent Terrell, who helped steal the third-quarter momentum with long punt and kickoff returns, “It’s hard to see the clock hit zero and knowing you didn’t come out with the victory. We left it all out there. Saint Louis was the better team today. It just sucks.”
Lee has 24 of Saint Louis’ 41 ILH championships. The Crusaders are going for their seventh overall state championship and fifth under Lee. The school also has 14 Oahu Prep Bowl championships (prior to the start of the state tournament in 1999), all under Lee.