For a half, Damien looked like the clear-cut, no doubt favorite to repeat as the ILH Division II champs.
The Monarchs held a 21-0 lead and weren’t giving up anything on defense to St. Francis at Aloha Stadium on Friday night.
Things started to turn in the third quarter when the two teams combined for no yards in the first 16 plays of the second half.
Then came the comeback attempt. A 72-yard interception return for a touchdown by Destin Pakele was followed up by the Saints’ best drive of the game. Sophomore quarterback Bubba Akana was scrambling for yards for the first time and then came up with his two best throws of the evening. A 1-yard TD run by Wembley Mailei was followed by a two-point conversion and Damien had to convert a third-and-6 with a minute remaining to hold on for the 21-16 lead.
With only four games played in the regular season, it was critical to get a win on opening night. It certainly wasn’t as easy as it seemed like it might be early on for the Monarchs.
“Yeah, we’re banged up a little bit,” Damien coach Eddie Klaneski admitted.
His do-everything quarterback, Marcus Faufata-Pedrina, missed most of the fourth quarter before coming back out for that final drive. He took a shot to his lower back and Klaneski seemed a little worried about his QB’s health.
Faufata-Pedrina (10 TD’s passing, four rushing) has had a hand in all but two of Damien’s offensive touchdowns this season. He is the bulk of the Damien offense, accounting for 961 of the team’s 1,317 total yards. He leads the Monarchs with 647 passing yards and his 314 rushing yards and twice as much as the next-closest rusher.
“He’s going to be our go-to-guy but he has to be a little bit smarter as well,” Klaneski said. “He knows he needs to spread the ball around a little bit, but it just so happened that (St. Francis’) defense is so tough and it put him in a predicament where he couldn’t throw the ball as much and he had to run around a little bit.”
Last season, St. Francis lost to both Damien and Pac-Five before coming back to beat both of them and finish 2-2 in league play, one game behind the Monarchs.
The Saints got off to a slow start on Friday, allowing two blocked punts while throwing four interceptions. Damien’s three touchdown drives all came in the first half and all started with an average field position at the Saints’ 20-yard line.
The second half showed just how physical the Saints can be. DL Supilani Mailei (6-1, 265) had nine tackles with four tackles for loss and Tevita Otuvaka (6-2, 245) added seven tackles with four tackles for loss. Junior Takaamoatoa Lautaha (6-3, 240) also had six tackles with three tackles for loss.
The big difference between this year and last year is there will be a playoff in the ILH. The top seed will receive a bye and the winner between the second and third seeds will have to beat the regular-season champion twice to win the ILH and advance to states.
Damien took a big step toward repeating on Friday night, but it was clear by the end of the game that the rest of the season will look much more like the second half than the first half. It won’t be a cakewalk to the Division II title. The Saints will make sure of that.