As the Kaiser cheerleaders fanned out into three rows, a couple things were immediately apparent.
The cheerleaders were well organized. And there were more cheerleaders than Kaiser varsity football players.
When the Cougars — all 22 of them — journeyed into Ewa Beach on Friday night, it was like watching members of an endangered species fighting for their lives in the jaws of a predator.
Jhoven Sausal took the opening kickoff return 75 yards to the house, launching what would become a record-setting 71-0 Campbell rout of Kaiser.
It was figuratively painful on the scoreboard, which read 55-0 at halftime. It was literally painful out on the field for the Cougars’ two-way warriors. Injuries took their toll, knocking several players out either temporarily or for the rest of the game.
But just playing a real game, even this one, had meaning for the Cougars (0-3). They forfeited their first two OIA Blue games, to Mililani and Radford, because of insufficient numbers.
“We worked all summer for this. We had countless hours for this, we sacrificed so much of our other time for this,” said junior receiver Noah Matsumoto, who caught four passes for 14 yards and also played on defense and special teams. “And the fact that everyone on our team put it up on the field, I’m proud of my team. I love my team. We’re all brothers no matter what. Give the glory to God. I’m just glad we got to play. Especially for the seniors, this is their last year. Me as a junior, I want to make them have the best year possible. No matter how many we have on the team, I love my team.”
This time the Cougars were only marginally better equipped than their forfeit weeks. They wound up yielding the most points in their recorded history while Campbell set a program scoring record despite playing backups for two-plus quarters and running the ball almost exclusively.
Junior quarterback Casey Nguyen faced a steep learning curve in his first start. He went 14-for-29 with four interceptions, including two that the Sabers ran back for first-quarter pick-sixes.
Running back Kaeo Lakanilau and running back/linebacker Austin Schaefer were knocked out of the game in the first half. Running back Reece Kaonohi and lineman/converted running back Andrew Choi had injury scares but remained in the game.
“Injuries (are) tricky, and some guys have to play out of position,” coach Arnold Martinez said. “It’s a situation and they’re learning a great lesson in life. Football games and scores on the board doesn’t define you as a human being. This isn’t curing cancer. These guys are learning resilience and how to play for each other and play hard. So I’m very, very proud of them.”
Martinez gave the 5-foot-8 Nguyen credit for persisting through struggles.
“Live bullets. A lot of blitzes, a lot of (physicality),” the coach said. “That defense is coming at you, a lot of speed. But I thought he hung in there. Missed a couple reads here and there, threw into some coverage. Ball sailed a couple times. But overall, he got back in it. Got a little bit of a rhythm and made some good plays for us.”
The packed crowd of Sabers fans, ready for a raucous party, had little to cheer about after the first handful of touchdowns revealed just what a mismatch it was.
At one point, officials took an unusual “hydration timeout” when Kaiser was clearly gassed and hurting.
In the huddle, the Cougars were determined to continue.
“I just told everybody, ‘are you tired?’ No one raised his hand,” Matsumoto said. “We did conditioning every day just for this. We knew this was going to happen, we knew we were going to get tired. So we conditioned our ass off. I just told everybody I loved them, that no matter what, even if yell at you it’s cause I love you.”
The Cougars made an inspired goal-line stand in the fourth quarter and forced the Sabers’ backups to turn it over on downs at the 1-yard line. Unfortunately, Kaonohi was downed for a safety when he was tackled for a loss a couple plays later.
Up next for Kaiser on the schedule is a relatively manageable game at Aiea, and then — shudder — a trip up the North Shore to face Kahuku.
It’s up in the air whether Kaiser will actually play those games. At times Friday, it appeared very possible that the Cougars wouldn’t finish out the night, let alone the season.
“We gotta evaluate it week to week now,” Martinez said. “We lost some guys. Many times (during the game) the trainers and administrators were asking whether we were going to continue. But to the kids’ credit, they said ‘no, we can finish this. We can finish.’ … It’s our (coaches) call, really. Safety is a priority. But I talked to some of these guys and said, listen, the next injury, (we stop). They said, ‘Coach, let us try.’ So, I said OK. But I’m going to protect you. If we can’t go, we can’t go.”
But, at least for one game, Kaiser went.
— Brian McInnis (@Brian_McInnis) September 2, 2017