Monarch Transportation: By ground, by air

Damien's Dallas Labanon gets to air it out when opponents stack the box. George Lee / Star-Advertiser
Damien’s Dallas Labanon gets to air it out when opponents stack the box. George Lee / Star-Advertiser

They are serving the greater good, these Damien Monarchs.

For longtime, patient fans, the Monarchs aim to please whether by ground or air. It might be enough to take them someplace special this fall.

Yes, Damien is back in the ILH Division II final, but some things are different this time around. Coach Eddie Klaneski’s team can hurt any defense that tilts too close to either aspect of the Monarchs’ offense.

In Friday’s 42-28 semifinal win over a dangerous Pac-Five squad, the meter tilted back to ground and pound out of their veer attack with that quick-hit handoff. Most of the time the ball went to sturdy Samson Low, who had career highs of 177 yards and 21 carries, plus two TDs. Defending that simple, explosive handoff is easier said than done. De La Salle employed the same methodology a few years back against Saint Louis on that same field with a mighty running back then known as Maurice Drew.

Kaeo Arakaki of Damien victimized Pac-Five in the first half on Friday. George Lee / Star-Advertiser
Kaeo Arakaki of Damien victimized Pac-Five in the first half on Friday. George Lee / Star-Advertiser

It’s been quite a three-game stretch for Low. The compact, 5-foot-6, 148-pound senior prepared himself for such a time as this, and he has met the challenge with flying colors. But it wasn’t always, and in some ways, still isn’t just about handing Low the ball. Defenses had to account for QB Dallas Labanon and his big 6-5 target down the field, Kapi‘ina King, plus a corps of solid receivers. There are other RBs who have been effective, including Dutch Clayburgh and Elijah Brown.

But Low makes it go, chipping away on that burst next to the left and right tackles. The later the Monarchs go into the season, the more they have stuck with their balanced approach. Here’s what Low’s game-by-game numbers look like.

> at Kauai: eight carries, 43 yards; one catch, 16 yards
> at ‘Iolani: 14 carries, 62 yards; two receptions, 10 yards
> vs No. 1 Punahou: eight carries, 11 yards
> at No. 3 Kamehameha: four carries, minus-1 yard
> vs. St. Francis: 10 carries, 24 yards, TD, 2-point run; one reception, 6 yards
> vs. No. 3 Saint Louis: 19 carries, 81 yards, 2-point run; two receptions, 4 yards
> vs. Pac-Five: 19 carries,101 yards; one reception, minus-2 yards
> vs. Pac-Five (playoff): 21 carries, 177 yards, two TDs

What makes Low’s upswing unusual is that he’s not just a D-II back picking up yardage agains another D-II team. His confidence, and the offense’s development, has begun to peak since that shootout loss (54-34) to D-I Saint Louis — the same Crusaders defense that limited a potent Kamehameha offense to 20 points on Friday.

This isn’t to say Damien has a better offense than Kamehameha, of course. This does show that the Monarchs are willing to buy into their offense, defense and special teams 100 percent. I’ve seen at least one team lag defensively in this postseason (not Damien or Pac-Five) after falling behind, and there’s no quit in the Monarchs, even after they trailed 14-0 to Pac-Five on Friday.

It was a week earlier when they rallied for a 26-21 win over the same Wolfpack. The differences this time?

>> Labanon was 15-for-30 in the first meeting, with one TD pass and no picks. The Monarchs ran 42 times, a 58-percent run percentage. The rematch looked more like a traditional veer offense: 49 rushing attempts for 278 yards, and Labasan was 12-for-17, 171 yards, two TDs and one pick. That’s a run-pass ratio of 74-26. At more than 5 yards per rush, it made sense to just keep pounding away rather than force deep passes.

>> This isn’t so much different as it is telling. Low had 66 yards by halftime, including TD runs of 2 and 37 yards, but he had just five carries. It was after halftime that he did his clutch work, with 16 carries for 111 yards. Three of those carries were for first downs and another went for his third TD. It’s tough for any defense to commit to eight defenders in the box when there’s a big threat (King) waiting for single coverage and another alley-oop toss.

>> Though they gave up 28 points, it was a very good defensive performance for Damien. Jarin Manuel and Kana‘i Picanco picked off Wolfpack QB Kainoa Ferreira. Chase Lundberg and Kaeo Arakaki snatched interceptions. Sophomore Grayson Bueno came up with a sack.

>> The running game helped the Monarchs keep the Wolfpack’s airborne offense on the sideline as much as possible, in theory. Ferreira still threw 54 passes, but completed just 22, along with the two picks. He finished with 311 yards, but late in the game, Damien forced him into seven consecutive incompletions, including an INT. For an offense that is almost completely dependent on the pass, a 60-percent completion rate is a must. But the Monarchs found a way to stifle him during a key stretch late in the game.

>> Tsubasa Brennan’s first name translates to “wing” in Japanese, and he was clearly the biggest component that the Wolfpack’s passing game could fly on. He finished with 12 catches for 208 yards and a TD. That score came on a quick pass on a go route, and he shook of a tackler, flew by another and reached paydirt 39 yards later. Damien often shaded to Brennan’s side of the field, except early on when Brennan actually lined up with the trips receivers.

Brennan finished the year with 88 receptions for 1,160 yards and 11 TDs. Most defenses had their chance to bottle him up after he went for 19 grabs, 292 yards and four TDs in the season opener at King Kekaulike. He still managed to make at least eight receptions in every game but one: Kamehameha. He had two catches for 89 yards and one TD against a very good secondary.

His game-by-game stat line for 2015:
>> at King Kekaulike: 19-292, 4 TD (15, 52, 29, 55)
>> vs. St. Francis: 11-144, 2 TD (17, 31)
>> vs. No. 8 Saint Louis: 14-119, TD (19)
>> vs ‘Iolani: 8-73
>> vs. No. 5 Kamehameha: 2-89, TD (84)
>> vs. No. 1 Punahou: 9-85; three rushes, 20 yards; 0-for-4 passing
>> vs Damien: 13-150, 2 TD (13, 6)
>> vs Damien (playoff): 12-208, TD (39)

The nature of the offense meant lots of targets for several Wolfpack receivers, but the emphasis was on Brennan, who often had a height advantage on cornerbacks and the mental toughness to go after every ball as if it would be his last. With most pass-first offenses spreading the ball around more evenly, it’s rare for these kinds of numbers to show up. Robby Toma of Punahou had 1,388 receiving yards and a whopping 18 TDs on 85 receptions in 2008 during a state-championship season. Another Punahou great, Miah Ostrowski, had 81 catches for 1,317 yards and nine TDs in ’06. (Ostrowski also had 97 grabs in ’05.)

Billy “The Bonecrusher” Hull points out that Brennan came up just a little short of 2,000 yards for his career. Brennan had just eight games this fall, and given his consistency, he probably would’ve cracked 1,300 yards with two more games. Toma, who went on to star at Notre Dame, had great chemistry with QB Cayman Shutter, the kind of timing and efficiency that I still haven’t seen between a passer and catcher since. Ostrowski had prolific Brett Kan, and they nearly beat Kahuku in the state title game.

Brennan, Sean Kinel (33 catches, 602 yards, 7 TDs) and Jarrod Infante (47-397, two) had a first-time starting QB, just a sophomore, who learned on the job and learned fast. Ferreira is resilient and has the potential to lead the Wolfpack to heights they haven’t seen in some time, but he may not have another trio of receivers like this again.

>> Ferreira’s final numbers for ’14: 170 completions, 353 attempts, 2,268 yards, 23 TDs, 10 interceptions. It’s easy for some to say he’s a product of the system. Well, that’s true. Coach Kip Botelho’s offense is designed to produce success, and with no real depth at RB — Trevor Yee provided a spark (eight carries, 45 yards) against Damien — and the flip side of the “system” criticism is that Ferreira produced these numbers in spite of a predictable offense. I could tell you I’m going to throw the ball and maybe even show you the exact play we’ll be using, but you still have to stop it. Or not.

>> Give Botelho and his staff credit for 1) trying to find new wrinkles to get the 6-1, 170-pound playmaker open space, and 2) trusting in a sophomore QB and a reliable group of receivers to air it out at an astounding rate.

>> Target list.

• Kinel: four receptions, 56 yards (10 targets)
Grey Ihu: 1-17, TD (four targets)
• Brennan: 12-208, TD (28 targets)
• Yee: 1-0 (one target)
• Infante: 2-10 (three targets)
Daven Pila: 1-15 (two targets)
Travis Kaloa: 1-6 (one target

• King: 6-57, TD (nine targets)
Austin Ballesteros: 1-23 (one target)
Ian Lundberg: 1-9 (one target)
• Picanco: 2-61 (three targets)
• Arakaki: 2-21, TD (two targets)
• Brown: 0-0 (no targets)

In the end, it’s about winning, not stats. And what gave Pac-Five its best chance to win was to air it out. For Damien, it was about developing their group of RBs and WRs, and letting Labanon and their offensive line learn how to win with that balanced formula.

Now it’s on to ‘Iolani, a team Damien has lost 14 games in a row to. Damien last beat the Raiders in 2009, when Kama Bailey rushed for 220 yards and two TDs in a 14-10 win at Eddie Hamada Field.


  1. Philip Low October 20, 2014 3:59 am

    Two consecutive gutsy efforts by both Damien and Pac5. Great article, Paul Honda. Keep up the excellent work.

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