The final two weeks of the ILH Division II regular season have shown it’s a three-team race for the league crown this year.
Damien, which finished a league-best 5-1 in the first round, won one of the best games of 2017 against St. Francis, rallying from 13 points down in the third quarter to pull out a 27-20 victory after being held to 14 total yards in the first half.
The Monarchs have had the upper hand ever since that game and will reap the benefits of getting the No. 1 seed in the second round when they play undermanned Pac-Five, which finished 0-6 in the regular season, on Friday at Aloha Stadium.
The other two teams, St. Francis and ‘Iolani, will play Friday at Kozuki Stadium where just about anything could happen. The Saints pounded their way to a 43-26 win in the first meeting with sophomore running back Jonan Aina-Chaves rushing for a then-school record of 215 yards. In the rematch, Aina-Chaves eclipsed that mark with 248 rushing yards, but it came in a losing effort.
St. Francis had no answer for ‘Iolani senior quarterback Tai-John Mizutani, who completed over 72 percent of his 49 passing attempts for 430 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-29 victory.
Combined with an overtime loss to Damien two weeks earlier in which ‘Iolani went up 28-0 and had multiple opportunities to win the game, the Raiders suddenly have the look of a team capable of making run these next two weeks.
To further complicate the situation, the Saints rebounded with a 19-0 shutout in the final first-round game against the Monarchs, handing Damien its first loss this season against a Hawaii opponent.
The game had no bearing on seeding in the second round, but both Damien coach Eddie Klaneski and St. Francis coach Kip Akana said they treated it like they would have any other game.
“We approached this like any other week and wanted to obviously win the game,” Klaneski said. “We thought we were in a good place (on offense) to do things, but we just weren’t clicking the whole game. We just couldn’t get going and when we did we had turnovers.”
“Every game is important for us, so we played it like it was an important game,” Akana said. “Coming off the ‘Iolani loss, we couldn’t wait to get back out on the field.”
Now the Saints will try to atone for that loss to the Raiders with their season on the line. With Damien clinching the first-round title, the Saints need to win the second round to force a playoff for the overall league championship.
If the Saints lose to ‘Iolani, regardless of what Damien does, the Monarchs will receive the ILH’s berth in the Division I state tournament due to its victory in the first round.
The Raiders, who will likely represent the ILH in the Division II state tournament, have had trouble stopping the run all season, so it’s a pretty good bet that Aina-Chaves will again have his way.
The difference for the Saints is containing Mizutani, who was 36-for-49 with only one interception in the Raiders’ win over St. Francis, and 29-for-46 with a season-high tying three interceptions in the loss to the Saints.
St. Francis, which used Wembley Mailei as more of a linebacker than a safety in the win over Damien, forced Monarchs quarterback Marcus Faufata-Pedrina to throw a season-high tying two interceptions, both at critical points of the game.
St. Francis senior Samson Kaleikau picked off passes in St. Francis’ wins over ‘Iolani and Damien and teammate Alek Miyasato intercepted Mizutani twice in the win over the Raiders.
That secondary will be the crucial unit against a Raiders team that won’t shy away from throwing it all over the field. Whoever gets the best of that matchup could be on their way to the second-round title game, and if the Saints can’t find a way to slow down Mizutani, a promising season for a team capable of winning a Division I state title could come to an end in just two days.