Punahou QB John-Keawe Sagapolutele is not your average freshman

Punahou freshman quarterback John-Keawe Sagapolutele (16), pictured in this 2019 game, will be a junior this fall as Nate Kia enters his first season as head coach. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

Punahou had big plans for 2019 with senior quarterback Hugh Brady back as the starter behind center. When the Pennsylvania commit tore his ACL in the Buffanblu’s second game at Farrington on Aug. 9, the team faced major uncertainty.

Freshman John-Keawe Sagapolutele was the next man up for team. After a 42-0 win over Waianae on Saturday afternoon, No. 3 Punahou is now 6-0.


It wasn’t until 2017 that the ILH allowed freshmen to play varsity football. But with Sagapolutele taking the reins, the Buffanblu haven’t missed a beat.

“Amazing. Very extraordinary, to believe and step in and take Hugh’s place. We’re really disappointed for Hugh because he was working really hard,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said. “But things happen, and John’s really stepped in and done a fantastic job.

“The schedule is tough, the competition is tough. Every week, we’re playing a big-time school defensively so he’s done a remarkable job.”

Maybe Sagapolutele would be on the JV team if Punahou fielded a team this year. Instead, he’s quarterbacked the varsity team to an unblemished start, including an equally resounding and surprising 45-0 win at Long Beach Poly (Calif.).

“It’s been hard, but my teammates have been really supportive of me,” Sagapolutele said. “I just have to take care of what we have to do.”

Sagapolutele completed the first six passes against the Seariders and was an efficient 10-for-15 for 179 yards and a touchdown in the first half. As the torrential downpour became unrelenting, all five of his pass attempts in the second half were incompletions, but at that point, the game was already in hand.

“I think we did pretty good. We were executing pretty well until it started raining. Things got a little shaky,” Sagapolutele said. “Especially when the ball got wet.”

When Brady went down, he was the first one to tell his heir apparent that things would be fine. In turn, Sagapolutele readily acknowledged that Brady’s tutelage has been a big factor in keeping the Buffanblu offense stable.

“Hugh played a really big role in that. He took me on the sideline and talked to me and told me it was OK, just be calm, make my reads and I’ll be fine,” he said. “The lineman were really good, too. They said they got my back. They’ve been really good about that.”

Brady has been impressed by the young Sagapolutele so far and wants to be there to help him in any way he can.

“He’s only a freshman so it’s crazy to think how he’s leading our varsity team and doing great,” Brady said. “He has a great attitude and he’s gonna do great in the future. I’m very happy for him. I try my best to be a good role model to him and coach him up to the best of my ability.”

Entering Saturday, Sagapolutele was 50-for-95 with seven touchdowns and 690 yards. The numbers matter little to his teammates, who have taken notice of his poise and work ethic.

Vincent Terrell, who ran for 179 yards and four touchdowns against the Seariders, has also taken notice of the relationship between Brady and Sagapolutele and how it benefits the team.

“(Sagapolutele) is stepping up great. (Brady) is helping him a lot, teaching him what to do, and he’s just being like a sponge and soaking it all in and making the right reads,” Terrell said. “I’m really proud of him.”

And now, Sagapolutele faces his biggest test yet in Punahou’s next opponent — a Sept. 20 matchup with nationally-ranked Saint Louis at Aloha Stadium. Besides being cousins with Crusader defensive lineman Anthony Sagapolutele, John-Keawe has had the date circled for a while.

“I just feel like we need to prepare and get ready for that team,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing this season — getting ready for ‘The Lou.’”


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