All systems were go for the Godzilla of all Hawaii high school programs on Saturday night.
The No. 1-seeded Kahuku Red Raiders were ready to play air-tight defense and classic, smashmouth football. The blueprint was well defined. Soggy field on a wet night at Aloha Stadium in the title game of the Open Division in the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships. The moist conditions, in theory, would make things better for the state’s premier rushing team, a defending champion that had manhandled Saint Louis in the state final a year earlier, 39-14.
“We took them lightly,” Saint Louis linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia recalled.
This time, the tables turned. Saint Louis took over with defense and a running game — yes, this Ron Lee-four wide-passing juggernaut of an offense — to rule the second half for a 30-14 victory. Alabama commit Tua Tagovailoa concluded his record-setting career as a three-year starter with an epic performance in the title tilt. Three field goals by Jacob Tobias, the touchback maker who hadn’t made a FG during 10 previous games, another huge difference maker. Offense alone, however, didn’t net the Crusaders a state crown in 2014 and ’15.
Defense made the difference, of course, in winning a state championship. It didn’t seem remotely realistic, though, moments into Saturday’s Open Division final. Ironically, or coincidentally, Slade-Matautia, one of the state’s top LBs, reinjured his left shoulder while making a tackle on the second play of the game. He reinjured the same shoulder that was dislocated earlier in the season.
“It popped out again,” the speedy senior said.
Saint Louis didn’t get rattled. In fact, Kahuku didn’t score in the first quarter. The wheels began to wobble by quarter two, however, when Kahuku gashers Harmon Brown and Elvis Vakapuna began to follow their battering-ram blockers out of the I, then the jumbo set, for chunks. Each had a TD run by the half, and Kahuku led 14-13.
Then, strangely, oddly, miraculously — for Saint Louis fans — two things happened that in all normal logic should have led to another state-title game loss.
1. Another stud linebacker, Noa Purcell, left the game with a head injury.
2. Saint Louis’ two main replacements for Purcell and Slade-Matautia, Braeden Meyer and Emmit Vaiese, played perhaps the best games of their careers. Meyer had four tackles and a fumble recovery, and Vaiese had a sack, one of three by the Crusaders. That Meyer and Vaiese played well isn’t illogical. That they did it against nationally-ranked Kahuku and help save a defensive unit that surrendered 39 points just one year earlier to the Red Raiders — who knew?
It took 11 defenders to stop that normally unstoppable Kahuku stampede — the Red Raiders were 24-0 against in-state competition entering the game — and though they bent, they shut Big Red out in the second half. Kahuku got as close as the 1-yard line, where Kesi Ah-Hoy lost the ball on a leap over the pile and Saint Louis (Isaiah Tufaga) recovered in the end zone.
“The key is we had to stay low,” said Vaiese, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound sophomore.
With that, a Kahuku offense that rushed for 182 yards (6 per carry) in the first half managed to run for just 76 in the second half. Kahuku’s second half drive chart: Punt, Punt, Fumble Lost, Turnover on Downs, Fumble.
Sophomore Faatui Tuitele, once a middle-school phenom, had perhaps the game of his young career: 11 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack. But beyond the first level, it was a superlative team effort: Rick Sandry (eight tackles, pass deflection), Branin Moore (seven tackles), Isaiah Feary (six).
The two remaining LBs to avoid game-ending injury were Dylan Toilolo, who finished with five tackles, and Feary — two athletes fast enough to play DB, strong enough to face Kahuku’s stampede.
“I had to help the younger guys out. They did good. They were doing their jobs out there. There was a lot of talking about assignments. Our coaches wanted us to communicate. Kahuku is so strong, so we really had to hold our ground,” Toilolo said. “We had to get leverage on them. My body is really sore right now.”
Slade-Matautia had six tackles, gutting it out as long as he could before trainers took him to the lockerroom.
“There was a lot of emotion. I told them, ‘Keep your heads in the game. It’s your time to step up.’ Our senior, Braeden Meyer, came in and he knew what to do,” Slade-Matautia said.
Purcell, who had a spectacular game in the semifinals against Waianae, finished with two tackles. Safety Tufaga (three), Isaiah Saole (two) and Kaha‘i Auld (two) made it a complete defensive force kind of night for the Crusaders.
Three years into The Return, Cal Lee and his stellar staff have the Crusaders holding the championship koa trophy for 2016. A defense that once lacked depth up front and struggled to stop the run turned into a giant slayer on Saturday night.
Lee has been a stickler and perfectionist week in and week out for three seasons. Even after big victories, he bemoaned the errors of his team, especially on defense. Not this time. He was all smiles as he hoisted the massive perpetual championship trophy.
“After last year, a lot of these kids were here, and they knew the feeling, what it meant. To do it tonight, it shows how much they worked out, all year long, boy. We played a little tougher, stout up front. You have to against those guys,” Lee said. “What a credit to the guys who stepped up. Losing those two veterans like that. We made some adjustments, and it all ended up well. We always talk about, you never know, the game is so physical, and when someone is injured or sick, everyone’s got to be ready to step up.”
After all these games, over weeks, months, years, Cal Lee praised his defense to the maximum. Drenched after a celebratory Gatorade shower, the Crusaders won in a way that a championship coach at any program would appreciate.
“It means so much to us. Coach Cal is always on our case, so this really means so much to us,” Toilolo said.
The melding of old school, with Lee, and a high-risk, high-reward approach of assistant coach Wes Tufaga — former Crusader championship player and former Kahuku JV coach — paid off nicely for Saint Louis.
“The defense was really comfortable with the packages that he put in,” Toilolo said. “We mixed it up a lot out there. A lot of blitzes and twists, stuff like that.”