Darren Johnson, a grown man with a hard-nosed football past, was crying real tears after talking to his players.
His eyes were fully watered and red.
His Campbell Sabers had just come oh-so-close to moving on to the Open Division title game of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA State Football Championships at Aloha Stadium.
It got away, though, in the semifinals on Friday night at Aloha Stadium.
No. 5 Campbell led by three at the half before No. 3 Kahuku gained the momentum along with an 11-point lead.
It was far from over when the fourth quarter hit. The Sabers gallantly came back before succumbing on a just-missed tying 2-point conversion pass with 16 seconds left.
There was one more chance, though. Senior Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala recovered the onside kick. It gave the Sabers two more plays from Kahuku’s 34 — not far from field-goal range that, if the situation arose, could have possibly given them the needed three points to win — but it was not to be.
In the end, Kahuku (9-3) walked away with a 21-19 victory to move on to the state final next Friday.
For Campbell, the season is over at 6-6. But for the second year in a row at states, they put a full-on scare into their opponents. A year ago, it was a 20-2 state semifinal loss to Mililani that was closer than the final score shows.
This loss is going to be hard to take as the days go by, according to Johnson.
“They played hard, they played hard,” he said about his boys. “They played the way they’re supposed to play. I just wanted them to come out victorious. I know what they’re made of. I know we can win.”
The turf at Aloha Stadium gave some extra impetus to the Sabers, who bogged down twice earlier this year to Kahuku on the Red Raiders’ grass field — 35-7 and 46-0.
This time, it was a different story. Blaine Hipa threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns. Four receivers — Zavier Ceruti, Sky Lactaoen, Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala and his younger brother Titus Mokiao-Atmimala, combined to catch 23 of his 29 completed passes on 39 targets.
Campbell was missing standout running back Jonan Aina-Chaves, who did not suit up for undisclosed reasons, and the team wound up being held to minus-23 yards rushing.
Trailing 21-10 at the end of three quarters, Campbell roared back on Taylor Chase‘s 24-yard field goal.
Then things began to get really interesting.
Blesyng Alualu-Tuiolemotu blocked a Kahuku punt in Red Raiders territory, but the Sabers couldn’t punch it in late in the fourth quarter when Hipa’s QB sneak from the 1-inch line was stuffed.
But because Kahuku was pinned in its own end, the Sabers got it back with 1:09 to go, and Hipa found Titus Mokiao-Atimalala with a 24-yard TD pass in the left, front corner of the end zone. Only two points away now, 21-19.
And it was nearly tied up on Hipa’s pass to Titus Mokiao-Atimalala. The lob was about to sail over the head of Tomasi Pasi, but the Red Raiders defensive back tipped it enough to divert the ball. It looked like it was going to go right in Mokiao-Atimalala’s hands. He actually got his paws on it a few feet off the ground, but it rolled to the turf.
“The ball was actually supposed to go the opposite way, but Blaine didn’t have anything over there,” Titus Mokiao-Atimalala said. “He needed help, so I told him to throw it up and I’ll try to make a play. I saw that it was tipped and I tried to get under it, but it hit the ground before I could get to it.”
Said Johnson: “We threw it to the right guy. Nine out of 10 times, he would have made that play.”
Asked how his players are responding to the loss, Johnson added, “They have a lot of heart, a lot of guts, a fighting attitude. We wanted to come out victorious. They’re all right right now, but it hits you two days later. It’s going to hit me hard. It’s going to be hard to carry.”
Hipa and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala will be back for his senior year next season and will be trying to get Campbell over the staggeringly difficult state hump.
“I feel bad for the seniors, my brother, and all of my brothers who are seniors,” he said. “I wanted to win for them. The fact that we couldn’t pull it off, it hurts me. I made too many mistakes, but I promise I’ll be back next year. We showed character and we were able to dig deep inside our hearts. We knew we wanted it. It didn’t go our way. There’s some stuff we couldn’t control. It is what it is.”