Normally, there are scrimmages and a preseason game or two before the Saint Louis Crusaders take on a nationally-ranked opponent.
There is nothing normal about these times. The Crusaders are in Las Vegas, having gonega nearly two years without an official football game. Ranked 30th nationally by MaxPreps.com, they will meet No. 13 Bishop Gorman on Friday night at Fertitta Field.
“I’m just glad. I’m happy we’ve got a game going. I’m happy we’ve got the ILH schedule, so it’s really, really positive for the kids, having a season and it’s a go,” Saint Louis coach Ron Lee said. “Gorman’s solid, always one of the top teams in the country. We’re anxious to see how we play. We’ve got some really good players, too.”
It is quite a crescendo for the Crusaders, who weren’t certain what to expect when the DOE postponed fall sports for public high schools last month.
“They were really down when they heard about the postponement. A little flat,” Lee said.
That changed with the ILH’s announcement on Monday that it will play an non-interleague schedule beginning next week, Aug. 27. The rest of Hawaii’s leagues are mandated to have all student-athletes vaccinated by Sept. 24. Saint Louis’ players, at least the ones on the trip, are vaccinated, Lee said.
“We have 65 guys. Before they go back to school, they have to get tested. We feel good about that. We’re trying to stay safe. A lot of things going through the kids’ minds,” Lee said. “Because of the trip, most of the kids took the shot. They’re lucky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take everybody because they’re not vaccinated. We lost some guys.”
Saint Louis played a few scrimmages last spring against Punahou, Kamehameha and club team Mill Vill Trojans. AJ Bianco remains the starting quarterback.
“AJ’s been with us three years. Now it’s his turn,” Lee said of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior. “AJ’s doing a good job. I’m anxious to see all of these guys play. Receivers, new running backs. We lost almost all our starters.”
The offensive line has been a pillar of strength as a relatively young roster gets up to speed. La‘akea Kapoi and Jonah Savaiinaea started as sophomores in 2019, and center Ethan Spencer saw some playing time. All three are committed to Division I college programs: Spencer to Hawaii, Savaiinaea to Arizona and Kapoi to San Diego State.
After that, players like linebacker Iona Purcell dot the lineup, talented contributors who would have stepped into major playing time during the ’20 season if not for the statewide cancellation.
“Same with our defense. We’ll find out who our players are when the lights go on. That’s what these games are for, to see. The big thing is they’re getting to play after waiting so long. Most of them are from the JV,” Lee said. “We’ve had some really good practices against each other, but we haven’t had a game since 2019.”
Saint Louis defeated Bishop Gorman, 31-19, at Aloha Stadium that year. If the coaching staffs have scouted each other this season, all that’s available are a few spring matchups and a scrimmage or two this summer.
“We looked at film, more of 2019 when we played them. That’s pretty much it. We have some tape from the Utah scrimmage, but it was so far away. We couldn’t see much,” said Lee, referring to a recent Bishop Gorman road trip. “We know they’re solid, good athletes. They’ve got tremendous speed and really good athletes, solid all the way around. They’re the type of team we really look forward to playing, and because of the long layoff, we’re trying to get ready for the ILH season.”
Lee noted that a recent transfer from Saint Louis, a starter, landed at Bishop Gorman.
“He couldn’t make the starting lineup, so he transferred to another school,” Lee said.
On Friday, the Crusaders will face a speedy Gaels team led by second-year head coach Brent Browner. They have a talent smorgasbord to match the massive weight room and training facility — Fertitta Athletic Center — on campus, which is located 13 miles southwest of the Las Vegas strip.
Eleven of Bishop Gorman’s roster spots are occupied by players who have Hawaii roots. Assistant coach Phil Faoa is a Saint Louis graduate and former Ewa Beach Sabers (JPS) coach. Starting quarterback Micah Alejado is another former Ewa Beach player.
“Alejado was at Saint Louis (in middle school). He’s a heck of an athlete. He can throw the ball. A good player. They’re grooming him, really, for college. That’s why the whole family relocated,” Lee said.
The three-time national champion Gaels are stocked with talent. Zachariah Branch, a junior, is rated a four-star athlete by 247Sports. The 5-9, 172-pound defensive back/wide receiver has offers from Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, Oregon State, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, UNLV, USC, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
The secondary will be a major test for Bianco. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s top five defensive backs in Las Vegas Valley includes four Gaels. In addition to Branch, Fabian Ross, Justyn Rhett and Kodi DeCambra are on the top-five list.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Lee said. “For us, a lot of the guys haven’t played much. In fact, I can’t think of too many guys, when you look at 2019, we lost just about all our defensive guys. They’re all young, haven’t played, and the same with offense. We have a couple of offensive linemen, La‘akea and Jonah, who (started). That’s what we’re really looking for, how these guys perform. That’s what all the coaches are anxious to see.”
Saint Louis quarterback Kekahi Graham recently transferred to Timpview (Utah). The mobile junior has been replaced as the backup QB by sophomore Oa Kamakawiwo‘ole.
“We lost Kahi Graham. He is kind of the same style (as Alejado), both left-handers, solid quarterbacks,” Lee said. “They talked to me after they made the decision. They have to live there (in Utah) for him to play. It’s a big sacrifice, a big move. He’s got to do what’s best for him and his future. He wants to play. Same with all of our quarterbacks.”
Temperatures dipped recently to a fairly moderate 99 degrees on Wednesday in smoky conditions caused by a Northern California wildfire. Two weeks ago, the Gaels practiced in routine fashion as the temperature was 108 degrees on a sunny afternoon. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (Pacific time) on Friday.
Extra points: Prior to Bishop Gorman, Saint Louis had hoped to play No. 1 Mater Dei (Calif.). Liberty, the defending state champion in Nevada, will play Mater Dei in the Polynesian Football Classic on Sept. 10 at Las Vegas. … DeCambra, one of the 11 transplanted islanders, received a scholarship offer from Washington State on Wednesday. … The game will be streamed live on the NFHS subscription-based site.
Ma’a Gaoteote is class of 2021. He’s a freshman at Michigan State.
Ma’a, Jaden, DJ, Charlotin and Tafao graduated last year.
Gorman good already, dey no need anymore boostin’.
I just moved to Vegas and i’m hoping to attend and the game? Are fans permitted ?
Is the game gonna be on air or will anyone be streaming it??
Watched Alittle of Gorman’s practice yesterday. Mostly warmups and some position drills. They got size and speed. Fans are allowed and it’s probably gonna sellout. Just soooo happy for the players being able to get back to playing the sport they love and dedicated so much of their life to.