Heartbreak. Relief. Appreciation.
The bumpy road that laid ahead for the Punahou Buffanblu simply brought the best out of each player and coach. By the end, No. 2 Punahou was the only team to lead nationally-ranked Saint Louis all season.
On Friday night at Aloha Stadium, with playoff survival at stake, the Buffanblu rallied from two touchdowns down to tie the game at 14 in the third quarter.
“The momentum changed. Our defense getting great stops, and our O-line doing a great job. All to them,” senior receiver Koa Eldredge said.
With a 21-14 win, Saint Louis claimed the ILH Open Division title for a fifth year in a row. Punahou has not played in the state tournament since 2014, all due to Saint Louis’ resurgence. With Saint Louis locked in at No. 6 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25, there may be a case for Punahou (10-2) to be in the poll. The finality of the second-best team in the state finishing its season was bittersweet.
“It was a battle. We didn’t quite get it done. I’m proud of our team, the way they fought and scrambled back. Being down 14-0 at the half, and then tying it up, you really can’t ask for more,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said.
Punahou has been among the best two or three defensive units all season long, posting five shutouts along the way. The pass rush on QB extraordinaire Jayden de Laura of Saint Louis was relentless. Nathaniel Kia, Tevaua Tafiti, Zander Manuel and Andrew Canonico each had a sack, and Eli Thompson picked off a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half.
No team has scored more than 25 points on Punahou all season. Only Saint Louis, Campbell and Kamehameha scored 20.
“Saint Louis took advantage of little things. A couple of penalties were really tough, but overall, there’s not much more we could do. I’m so disappointed for them, the fact that they can’t continue to play,” Ane said.
Punahou (10-2) endured the loss of senior quarterback Hugh Brady in week 2 to an ACL injury. He stuck by his team, keeping his promise to support freshman John-Keawe Sagapolutele as a first-time starter.
“All my teammates, especially the seniors, they did a great job leading our team. They made us come together even though I’m a freshman. For all of us freshmen on the team, they filled the gap between us and the seniors, so we felt as one team,” Sagapolutele said.
He was at the steering wheel in the first matchup with Saint Louis, when Punahou jumped to a 16-6 halftime lead before losing 25-19. Even now, his progress and skill in the pocket have developed to a new level. The Saint Louis pass rush was strong, as usual, but the freshman expertly, consistently tip-toed his way higher in the pocket without losing vision downfield.
“I feel like I got a little more comfortable, but it was all just a team effort. The line said they got me and I trusted them. Everything worked from there,” said Sagapolutele, who fired TD passes to Raydan Kiaaina-Caires and Eldredge in the third quarter to tie the game. “Every day, from the beginning of the season, we had to get ready for Saint Louis. No matter who we play, we’re preparing for Saint Louis. It’s just a feeling (in the pocket). We’ve been working on it so much, it got better throughout the season.”
The young squad had strong leadership from seniors like Brady, safety Alaka‘i Gilman, Eldredge, offensive lineman Solatoa Moeai, linebacker Legend Matautia and many more.
“Our seniors are great leaders. They’re great teammates. They encourage everybody. Engaging. That’s exactly what you want in leaders and teammates,” Ane said. “It was a struggle because we lost so many good players last year, but these guys overachieved and did everything they could to compete.”
Eldredge was first in the post-game handshake line. The respect between the Buffanblu and Crusaders is real. Authentic. Solemn. Eldredge was a bit emotional after his final game on the gridiron. He will have baseball season in the spring, and will play both sports at BYU. But he is already missing his Buffanblu football life.
“Our teamwork, just coming out to practice every day with the boys I love. It’s all right. It was a good run,” Eldredge said.
Manuel stayed close to teammates Dillon Lundberg and Matautia as the crowd at Aloha Stadium emptied out.
“I’ll miss the boys, just playing with each other,” Manuel said.
Lundberg and his teammates were piled with leis after their final game.
“This is the real brotherhood, actually. Along the road, we’re going to keep each other out of trouble and look out for each other,” he said.
Matautia is already looking forward to hitting the mat. Wrestling season is underway.
“No matter what happens, we got each other,” he said.
Unlike running back Vincent Terrell, Manuel and Matautia, Gilman won’t be wrestling anytime soon. He joked about becoming a diver and his love for wearing Speedos. But jokes aside, he had a directive for the younger Buffanblu.
“These are Hawaii’s ballers here. After our class leaves, I just hope our underclassmen keep rolling on what we built,” said Gilman, who is a commit to Washington State.
Eldredge put on a clinic on route running and technique at wideout week after week.
“Buffanblu forever. I’m always going to be part of the Buffanblu. I love this team. I love this family. It’s a brotherhood like no other.”
Earlier on Friday, coaches from Ohio State, Stanford and Washington stopped by the Punahou campus, Ane said. Stanford, which made an offer to Gilman recently, is pursuing diligently.
Gilman had a parting shot for a format that has the No. 2 team in the state turning in its pads before the state tournament begins.
“They’ve got to do something about that. Maybe next year and the following years, let the No. 1 and 2 teams into states,” Gilman said. “It only makes sense.”