Two games, two victories for the men of Kalaepohaku.
Only in this era of a global pandemic and no spectators (most of the time) at football games, Saint Louis football fans can enjoy two for the price of one. After the Saint Louis I-AA (JV) squad outlasted Kamehameha I-AA, 48-35, the Open Division Crusaders pulled out a 27-21 win over the Open Division Buffanblu.
If ever there was a chance to examine the game of Ron Lee and Cal Lee football under a microscope, Friday was the time. Aloha Stadium was the lab. No. 2 Saint Louis improved to 2-2 overall (2-1 ILH) by containing Punahou’s gunslinger in the shotgun, John-Keawe Sagapolutele. After scintillating opening drive, Punahou couldn’t get consistent drives going. Saint Louis’ talented, young and improving defense limited Sagapolutele to 144 passing yards (12 for 26) with one interception. The junior picked up 29 rushing yards on three scrambles, but left with 6 minutes left in the game after taking a hit in the backfield as he backpedaled during a pass.
AJ Bianco continues to transform with each start. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior passed for 341 yards (30 for 43), but his ability to avoid big losses on sacks was huge. So was his ability to churn out free yards after escaping the pocket. Bianco picked up timely first downs with his legs, frustrating a relentless Buffanblu defensive unit.
“He’s getting better every week. He’s consistently throwing for 300 yards per game, his fourth game (as a starter). What he’s doing for the first year (starting), he’s doing a heck of a job,” Saint Louis coach Ron Lee said.
Bianco threw for two touchdowns and was intercepted twice, including a fourth-and-20 heave downfield that was, essentially a punt. He showed the escapability and speed that comes from years of playing two sports, football and basketball. He was a prime contributor last winter when the Crusaders went 13-0 on the hardwood against a mix of club and school teams in exhibition games.
“I feel good. I think this game, we executed a lot better. I thought we had a lot more rhythm and put some drives together. We started off strong and just got to be better at finishing,” Bianco said.
Saint Louis’ tempo and rhythm were at their best on Friday. Rather than sit and wait, they kept moving forward as Bianco found his wide array of receivers on eight-yard gains, six-yard gains. Punahou could not take everything away, and when they did, Bianco handed the ball off to a three-headed monster at running back. That doesn’t include Trech Kekahuna, who moved from receiver to the backfield down the stretch.
“Pound for pound, he’s one of the strongest people in the country,” Bianco said of the elusive playmaker.
Kekahuna finished with 11 receptions for 90 yards, plus five carries for 19 yards. His presence at running back begs the question: will there be more of arguably the ILH’s most elusive offensive player out of the backfield.
The answer is also elusive.
“I think coach Ron does a great job of moving him around,” Bianco said. “That’s a credit to Trech’s versatility, a credit to what he can do rushing or catching passes and making plays.”
Whether it was a key fourth-and-short call or late-game ground-and-pound, Saint Louis has grown more confident with its “Elephant” formation. On a fourth-and-1, Punahou matched Saint Louis’ big-man substitutions. The Crusaders picked up six yards off right tackle. Then, right back to the four wide.
In all, they rushed 29 times for 90 hard-earned yards.
“We got as much as we could off the running game. (Punahou) came downhill real fast,” Lee said. “We need to be physical and bang it up front so the defense needs to defend the run. We might not get big yardage, but we need to make them play defense, get some contact. I think we did that.”
It wasn’t just about the offensive line, zone blocking, stretch plays and Bianco’s on-the-job training against elite blitz packages. Saint Louis got a plethora of hurries and hits on Sagapolutele, culminating in a deflection by freshman defensive lineman Vincent Tautua that was gathered in mid-air by teammate Joshua Sagapolutele.
John-Keawe Sagapolutele spent a good amount of time in the second half avoiding the pass rush. Tautua, a freshman, is a foundational piece in wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage.
“He reminds me a lot of Joe Siofele physically. Tall, very athletic, and he’s only in the ninth grade,” Lee said. “Our linebacker, (Roy) Ma‘afala, he’s fresh and he’s starting. They got a really bright future up front. They’re still learning. The came from intermediate, some from Big Boys to varsity. They’ve got a long way to go. Everybody (in the ILH) is really young.”
The youth movement, of course, isn’t limited to the Open Division Crusaders. I-AA quarterback Jaron-Keawe Sagapolutele, younger brother of Punahou’s QB, connected for six TD passes in the early game on Friday. Kache Kaio hauled in two of those for scores, from 12 and 22 yards out. Onosai Salanoa had a monster game with 13 receptions for 262 yards and three TDs.
Kaio, at nearly 6-2 and 200 pounds, is a sophomore who would start for most varsity teams statewide. He finished with eight hauls for 78 yards.
“He’s a basketball player, so that helps with the jumping and timing,” Lee said.
Salanoa, a phenom on the Pylon circuit, had a few easy catches via forward laterals on jet motion plays. However, the bulk of his downfield action came on a variety of routes, including old-fashioned deep posts. His chemistry with Jaron-Keawe Sagapolutele, another player with roots in Ewa Beach, was electric.
“Onosai was with us (on the Open Division roster), but it was better for him to go down to JV (I-AA) so that he could play. That kid is fast. Very mature for a freshman. He’s got great hands,” Lee noted. “I don’t know how much playing time he would get with us. Same with Jaron, the fact that he went down and is competing and winning games. It’s good for these guys as freshmen to go through this level.”
The level of competition in the receiver corps at Saint Louis is as challenging as ever.
“All of the receivers we have on the (Open Division) are young. The slots are all underclassmen. On the outside, they all come back (next season) except for Devon (Tauaefa),” Lee added.
Not many, though, get a triple comparison like this.
“Onosai is so versatile. He could play inside as a slot, not jus wide. He’s fast and tough. We’ve had so many good slots. He reminds me a lot of Koali (Nishigaya). He’s got everything. He can go deep and runs intermediate routes well,” Lee said. “George Ornellas. (Salanoa) reminds me of him. He knows how to run, kind of like Trech after the catch. He has a good feel of the read and where to go.”