Taking a team of first-time varsity players is only for the brave.
Damien and Pac-Five made their share of mental errors on the big stage on Friday night. In the end, Damien rallied for a wild 27-21 win at Aloha Stadium to secure its first win in ILH play.
The Monarchs (1-1) and Wolfpack (0-2), suiting up around 30-35 players each, came into the game with season-opening losses to ‘Iolani. After Pac-Five scored early on a Joshua Arcayena four-yard run, then extended the margin to 14 points on a spectacular 99-yard run by quarterback Ezekiel Rodrigues, Damien hung its collective heads for a moment or two.
First-year head coach Anthony Tuitele had faith in his team’s focus.
“I told them, there’s a lot of time left, so at the end of the day we just have to keep our composure and keep on playing,” he said.
“It’s all mindset. We had to stay calm under pressure and just do our job. We got it done,” said Sylas Avaimalo, who took over at quarterback after sophomore quarterback Jensen Tanele went down with a leg injury with 3 minutes left in the opening quarter. “Coach is hella proud of me, first time as a QB. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for the team. Shout out to the boys.”
Alaimalo, already making plays at linebacker, ran their RPO-heavy offense with effectiveness, leaping into the end zone for Damien’s first touchdown.
With 1:11 to go in the first half, Alaimalo heaved the pigskin almost shot put style to the end zone, where Pono Sales hauled it in to tie the game at 14.
“It was phenomenal. It was crazy. Amazing. He threw a dart to me,” said Sales, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back.
“I was surprised I got it there,” Avaimalo said. “But I trust my boy. He got it done.”
Then came a pick-six by senior Kela Chinen-Zablan. His 49-yard interception return gave the Monarchs a lead for the first time.
“I saw No. 2 (Casey Kusatsu-Cooper) go out and the quarterback was staring down on him, so I broke to the outside and took it to the house,” Chinen-Zablan said.
Three plays later, Pac-Five lost two-way standout Arcayena, who went down after a four-yard gain with roughly 7 minutes left in the third quarter.
“That was big time for them,” Tuitele said. “We had to block them no matter what. We had to keep the game simple (for Avaimalo). I told him, ‘You’re more mature than anybody else playing this game.’ He knows the game. His IQ is off the charts.”
Pac-Five remained gritty from start to finish. The ‘Pack got a fumble recovery by junior Duke Mobley and drove 62 yards in eight plays. Rodrigues came through with a scintillating 29-yard touchdown run, moments after taking a hit in the back and leaving the game, to give his team a 21-20 lead with 7:39 left.
However, Pac-Five showed its youth and inexperience moments later with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That saved Damien’s drive and led to a 29-yard TD run by Avaimalo for a 27-21 lead with 3:35 remaining.
Damien earned its first win of the season, and Tuitele notched his first victory as a varsity head coach.
“From the beginning, when I first became the head coach, I said we’re going to face adversities on and off the field. In order to face those adversities, we all got to have to stick together as a team. When we stick together as a team and have each others’ back, we can overcome that adversity,” Tuitele said. “Sure enough, we lost our quarterback. We got penalties. They went up. The fact that we just stuck together and believed in ourselves, we were able to move forward.”