LIHUE >> Damien coach Eddie Klaneski took a moment for a deep exhale after the clock hit zeroes to punctuate the Monarchs’ win over Kauai on Saturday.
The 13-10 victory at Vidinha Stadium was far from pretty, but as they had for much of the season, the Monarchs found a way to pull out a win, this one sending them to the Division I final of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Football Championships.
In their third straight state tournament appearance, the Monarchs again advanced past the previous year’s finish after falling in the D-II quarterfinals in 2015 and in the semifinals last year. They’ll play for the D-I title (under the HHSAA’s new three-tier format) on Nov. 18 at Aloha Stadium.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Klaneski said. “This has been our goal since we started seven years ago. We slowly made the climb the last three years.
“Damien has never won a state title, never hoisted a koa trophy. My goal was to be in that championship game and planning for that championship game and we’re finally there. There were a lot of speed bumps along the way. People made it really, really difficult for us. But we’re just happy to finally reach our goal and we’re going to try to get our kids the most prepared as possible.”
The Monarchs will have two weeks to prepare for the D-I final and catch their collective breath after a three-week stretch of high-tension games decided by a total of five points.
Damien traded one-point decisions with St. Francis with last week’s 13-12 win giving the Monarchs their third straight ILH Division II title and a trip to Kauai for the Division I state tournament semifinals.
On the same field where their title hopes were dashed by a semifinal loss to Kapaa last year, the Monarchs lost five turnovers, the first coming on the opening kickoff, and trailed 10-6 at halftime. But Matthew Faufata-Pedrina recovered a fumble five plays into the second half and Marcus Faufata-Pedrina’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Logan Lauti pushed the Monarchs ahead.
The Damien defense protected the lead from there, sealing the win with a fourth-down stop near midfield with 1:12 left.
“We’ve been in games where we have to come from behind and same thing, we just made a lot of mistakes,” Klaneski said. “But were able to bounce back. Our kids battled back, and the defense played tough.”
Klaneski acknowledged the win was somewhat bittersweet due to an injury to freshman running back Aperamo Sulu. On Damien’s first play from scrimmage, Sulu stayed on the field after a 6-yard run and trainers immediately waved the waiting ambulance onto the field.
He was driven from the field with a dislocated ankle, but returned to the stadium after the game on crutches and with his lower leg heavily wrapped.
“He earned his first start this week as a freshman, he’s such a hard worker in practice,” Damien senior Akila Arecchi said. “Our team really came together, we said a prayer on the sideline for him and came back and used that as motivation.”
After Damien took the lead early in the third quarter, Kauai went three-and-out on its next possession but recovered a fumble on the punt return to take over at the Damien 30. Two plays later, Manera threw an out to the right that fell incomplete. The officials ruled it a lateral and, not hearing a whistle, Arecchi scooped up the loose ball and raced downfield before being dragged down at the Kauai 10.
“We’re always taught play to the whistle,” Arecchi said. “When I never heard a whistle, I was gone.”
But the Red Raiders kept Damien from extending the lead with an interception in the end zone by Noah Ho’opi’i and another by Kyle Bissara after the Monarchs drove to the Kauai 17 on their next possession.
But the Damien defense didn’t allow the Red Raiders past midfield in their last three possessions of the afternoon.
“Our offense couldn’t capitalize.” Kauai coach Derek Borrero said. “It was going to be who’s going to take advantage of the opportunities and we just weren’t able to do that today.”
The KIF champion Red Raiders closed their season at 5-4
“It’s a test of character,” Borrero said. “We’ve been able to achieve a lot of our goals this year and this was one of them. We just weren’t able to accomplish that today, but we played against a very good team.
“This is going to hurt for a little while but I think we’re going to be OK.”