Damien is itching to get back to the Division II state tournament for the first time since 2003.
And for those who are counting, that was 12 years ago, the year of the inaugural D-II states.
This season, the Monarchs are in a position to control their own destiny after dispatching St. Francis 21-6 on Saturday. Aside from some uneven moments in the second half, Damien (4-0, 1-0) controlled the tempo and owned the momentum.
The first crucial test comes on Friday against Pac-Five (3-0, 1-0) in a matchup of unbeatens. In the D-II era, the Monarchs and Wolfpack have usually traded rights to second place behind ‘Iolani. The Raiders are not a nemesis for either team, having moved up to D-I for at least this season.
Damien head coach Eddie Klaneski said his team’s drop-off in parts of the second half against the Saints was due to a bruised shoulder suffered by quarterback Marcus Faufata-Pedrina. In came the projected starter this season and a starter a year ago, Bransen Apao, who is back after dislocating his kneecap and also going through several setbacks in the rehab process.
“Bransen just hasn’t had that many reps in practice and so our offense was a little out of sync for a little while,” Klaneski said. “Marcus is our starter, but it’s a good problem to have (another capable quarterback) with Bransen there, too. We’ve been using Bransen as a receiver and that’s his natural position.”
Klaneski was pleased that the Monarchs’ defense played steady throughout.
“We held our own on the defensive side, other than a couple of big mistakes (on St. Francis’ only scoring drive),” he said.
Courtney Paaga, a linebacker/defensive end hybrid, had a big game for Damien with two sacks and another tackle for loss. Grayson Bueno and Shawn Borges also contributed with a sack apiece, and Jarin Manuel pulled through with an interception on St. Francis’ drive deep into Monarchs territory on its last possession.
“(Paaga) is a small guy (5 foot 6, 165 pounds) and he has the ability to beat people on the edge,” Klaneski said. “He really brings a lot of toughness. He is one of our leaders and captains.”
Justice White was a workhorse on offense against St. Francis, carrying the ball 14 times for 71 yards, and Kepono Kawaakoa also chimed in with 83 yards on 10 carries.
Shaun Apiki, a 6 foot 4, 230-pound tight end, caught a TD in a crowd and is potentially a major weapon for the Monarchs.
“(Shaun) is really, really good,” said Klaneski of Apiki, who also plays basketball and volleyball for Damien and is an accomplished youth inline hockey player. “This is his first year playing for us, and he is on the brink of possibly becoming a D-I college prospect once he figures everything out. He does a lot of things well.”
And so, here comes Pac-Five into Damien’s view Friday. If the teams’ matchups against St. Francis are an indication, then it should be a close game. The Monarchs won by 15 (21-6), and the Wolfpack beat the Saints by 11 (29-18).
“They (the Wolfpack) are defensively tough,” Klaneski said. “We’ve got to be ready. This is the biggest game for us by far. Whoever wins will be on top and have a huge advantage, securing at least a spot in a playoff if that becomes necessary.”
In ILH D-II, each of the three teams plays each other twice and the team with the best record moves on to the state tournament, unless there is a tie for first place, in which case a playoff will be held.
For the first time since that inaugural D-II state tournament in 2003 (when Aiea beat Damien 9-7 in the final), ‘Iolani has been the ILH representative.
Friday’s game may go a long way in determining who will advance from the ILH this year. Game time is 5:15 p.m. at Aloha Stadium.
Paaga is looking forward to the showdown.
“I guarantee we’ll be ready for them (the Wolfpack),” he said. “We will do our best to come out as champions and represent D-II.”