Offense has taken Saint Louis quite far.
Defense by the gentlemen of Kalaepohaku could close the deal.
Clearly, and abundantly, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the offensive unit have provided ample push toward that beautiful koa trophy waiting to be taken home by this year’s state football champion. But right now, getting out of the semifinal round of the all-new, old-school-tenacious Open Division of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Championships isn’t about aerial delights alone.
It takes sound defense. Consistent, physical, smart defense by a unit that has full trust from one man to the next. With a 42-7 win over Waianae on Friday night, the Crusaders stopped one of the state’s most relentless ground-and-pound attacks. Waianae had to play with some of its key offensive players — QB Jaren Ulu and RB Rico Rosario — dinged up from recent injuries. But the Seariders have depth at RB, and even with an offensive line that has wreaked havoc on most foes this season, there was no place to go.
Rosario, one of the state’s rare 1,000-yard rushers, finished with a hard-earned 67 yards on 19 carries. Saint Louis limited Waianae as a team to 66 rushing yards, prompting coach Cal Lee to give his defensive unit possibly its highest grade of the season: B+.
“Yeah, I’ve got to be a little happy,” said Lee, who is still healing from surgery two weeks ago to remove a kidney stone. “But we’re not there yet. We want the perfect game.”
The front seven, featuring linebackers Noa Purcell (six tackles), Isaac Slade-Matautia (four tackles, two sacks) and Dylan Toilolo (four tackles, one sack), put out virtually every potential fire. Waianae didn’t score until the final 10 minutes of the contest.
It was the kind of dominance only a fan of defense could relish. Waianae ballcarriers were wrapped up by boa constrictors from sideline to sideline. The Seariders averaged 1.7 yards per carry.
“Against Waianae, you have to play basic, fundamental football,” Lee said. “We did a nice job with gap control, playing within our assignment.”
The Crusaders have grown deeper up front personnel-wise since the return of Lee, his brother and offensive coordinator Ron Lee, and an experienced staff steeped in Crusader championship lore. They remain steady in the secondary, too. While the ‘backers interrupted Waianae’s blend of plays from the front and back side, safety Isaiah Tufaga had five tackles, second among the Crusaders.
It was, for Lee and his staff, beautiful, bone-crunching poetry. There’s nothing, however, quite like being in the center of it all.
“We were pretty close to executing the game plan,” said Toilolo, a senior. “The game plan was to stop the run. Linebackers stay within three yards so we could get to the run a lot quicker and not get caught up in that block.”
Waianae normally will bring massive pounders like Mililani Misipati (6-1, 325) pulling into the hole, but it never consistently materialized against Saint Louis. There were interruptions at times behind the line of scrimmage, and it was nearly impossible to get to the second level.
“We can always be better. I feel good,” Slade-Matautia said.
Purcell suffered a stinger to his shoulder during the second half.
“He’s an all-around player. Fills the gap, one of our faster guys, One play, he hunted down the running back in the backfield,” Slade-Matautia said.
It wasn’t a bad night for the Crusaders’ offense, of course. Ronson Young was on the receiving end of three TD passes from Tagovailoa on basically the same pass route out of the backfield, all in the first half. His reliable hands helped build the 42-0 halftime lead.
“We don’t really talk about (plays). God’s plan is God’s plan. If He decides to give me the opportunity to go score, I just worked hard all week and did what I could,” Young said. “Tua understands when he can go do deep and when to dump off and let us do our thing. It’s all game-planning and preparing.”
Tagovailoa, who has seen every bit of tweaked and fitted defenses set up to slow him down, had another of his signature plays. The 80-yard TD jaunt in the second quarter started out with a horde of Seariders at the line of scrimmage. Somehow, he eluded the pass rush, kept his feet moving through the pocket and found an opening between the hash marks. Waianae, like many smart defenses, wasn’t going to allow Tagovailoa to gobble up chunks of yardage at the sideline. Instead, Tagovailoa was prepared to stride through the middle of the field, surprising the Waianae secondary with his second-gear speed.
Tagovailoa’s night was done by the half, a 239-yard, four-TD effort. Basically flawless by air, 13-for-15, 162 yards, three TDs, with 67 net rushing yards on just four carries.
Lee watched the second semifinal game, Kahuku’s runaway win over Kapolei, and came away impressed. Top-ranked Kahuku, the defending state champion, is unbeaten against Hawaii teams in two seasons under Vavae Tata, who played for Lee at Saint Louis and is now, arguably, the premier defensive guru of this era in Hawaii high school football.
Lee, who led Saint Louis to a state title in 1999 and 14 Oahu Prep Bowl crowns from ’83 to ’98, has been waiting patiently for another opportunity. He returned with his staff to Kalaepohaku in ’14 and quickly rebuilt the program back into elite status. Kahuku overpowered Saint Louis in last year’s state title game, 39-14.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Lee said. “No question.”