This game means everything.
Football is life. So are academics. God. Family. Life as a Saint Louis Crusader means being a Crusader for life. Saint Louis, ranked nationally at No. 6 in the USA Today Super 25 and No. 7 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 and No. 1 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, has a big showdown on Friday with No. 3 Mililani.
Coach Cal Lee recalls his friendship with a former Los Angeles Rams head coach, and how life might have been a bit different as a result. Coach Lee chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Tuesday.
HPW: Thank you again, Coach Cal. What has practice been like going into the Mililani game?
Lee: We’re going over offense, defense, special teams.
HPW: How often do you have full contact?
Lee: Our full contact is on Mondays and Tuesdays.
HPW: I didn’t get a chance to interview you after the game with Punahou, so I want to catch up. Going with Koali Nishigaya at running back late in the game, were you surprised that Coach Ron (Lee, offensive coordinator) went with him?
Lee: No we worked with him. Whoever Ron puts in is going to do well.
HPW: Koali had mentioned in preseason that he played some running back in JV, but he’s also one of the best slot receivers in the state. That was a very calculated risk after Saint Louis had four fumbles lost.
Lee: He can’t play two positions. He’s got quickness, gets the ball, he can run with the ball. He’s a handful to cover, no question. You gotta like him. Tough and a team player.
HPW: Punahou’s defense has been elite all season, very disciplined. They were very physical against your team.
Lee: Punahou played really well. Any time you can get takeaways with fumbles, they’re taking it away, we’re not giving it away. We’ve got to do a better job of that. We were fortunate to come out of there with a win. Four fumbles, gave up a kick return for a touchdown, missed PATs, missed a field goal. You name it, we did it.
HPW: On the other side, it was another great performance by the Saint Louis defense.
Lee: I thought we played pretty good. Second half, we held them to three points. We played pretty good defense, but there’s always room for improvement.
HPW: What changed during halftime?
Lee: We’ve got to play a little better, know what we’re doing. We made mistakes in the first half, made corrections so we don’t do the same thing in the second half. They responded very well.
HPW: The next day, Mililani played St. John Bosco. Did you and the staff watch on TV or go to the game.
Lee: We saw it live. (Bosco quarterback DJ Uiagalelei) was everything that was written up for him. A handful for anybody.
HPW: Coach Rod (York) has always said that he wants that kind of competition, that level of great opponents.
Lee: You play competition, that’s how you find out your weaknesses so you can get better.
HPW: Did you see anything different or surprising about Mililani?
Lee: They did all the things we see them do, you know? Almost the things they’ve always been doing.
HPW: One similarity to Bosco, I think, is Saint Louis’ defensive line. Really athletic and getting a lot of penetration. But what Mililani saw last weekend probably helps them prepare for Saint Louis in the trenches.
Lee: We’re going to sure try. Certainly, our speed can help us. I think we have some guys who can get after it. Hopefully we can do it this week.
HPW: In the years when you and Coach Ron were at UH, I know June Jones always wanted his offense to get back on the field quickly. He didn’t exactly want his defense to bend, bend and not break. But Coach Rod would be happy with a six- or eight-minute drive and keep your offense on the sideline.
Lee: You want to make sure you stop them in three downs and make them punt. He’s got the ball, we can’t score. I would think that’s what any offense would like.
HPW: Has there ever been a time when you and Coach Ron talk during a game on the headset about something like that?
Lee: Not really, we don’t talk that much during games. He’s the offensive guy. I let him do what he’s good at doing. Defensively, you want to do the things you want to do to get the ball back. I think any defensive coach would.
HPW: What teams want to do against Saint Louis is that blueprint. It’s kind of like my old LA Rams in the 1970s, the Ground Chuck approach under Coach Chuck Knox. They had some good quarterbacks and receivers, but it was built around the running game.
Lee: That’s my good friend Chuck Knox, I coached with him 1995 at the Hula Bowl. I coached it a couple of years with Bo Schembechler, Chuck Knox. We spent one week together. We became very good friends. He was up for the Seattle Seahawks head coaching job. He told me, “If I get the job would you go with me?” We were very close. But he didn’t get the job. I didn’t know this, but when I was coaching at UH, we were practicing in the Seattle facilities when we played at Washington. He was on the hall of honor. I didn’t even know he had been there (earlier in the ‘80s). He passed away, but what a great guy. It was a blast.
HPW: This game features two teams that have been affected by transfers over the years. But this is a unique setting because a few Saint Louis players transferred to Mililani in the offseason. You and Coach Ron have talked about Wynden (Ho‘ohuli), Malosi Sam and Kamalu DeBlake before, about depth at those positions, playing time and other factors. What do you think about that aspect?
Lee: The rule that they have now, it’s funny they can go from private to public (school), they don’t have to sit out. They made that rule ’99 where public to private, you have to sit out because we won for all those years. What kind of rule is that? You’re hurting the kids that want to come (to Saint Louis). People think you recruit, but when you win, people want to go to a school that’s winning. For our league to do something like that, I thought was very unfair that a kid has to sit out.
HPW: It’s across the board, too. Players have always gone to the ILH and left the ILH.
Lee: You look at the OIA, one kid going to Farrington, one going to Campbell. Two kids in one house and they’re separating.
HPW: That would be the Aina-Chaves brothers, Jonan (Bubbah) and Jonah, leaving St. Francis when the school closed. But I think the dominance of Saint Louis during that first run was the major factor in upsetting what administrators consider competitive balance. It was the success you and your program had, ranked nationally many times. Almost too good. In a way, it was practically your own fault for having that much success. The national ranking this year is something Crusader fans are proud of.
Lee: I”m not looking at that.
HPW: I know. But it’s there are the fans, former players, alumni, they take pride in it. And it’s interesting that the voters didn’t demote Saint Louis for the close (25-19) win over Punahou. Maybe Punahou should be getting votes, too.
Lee: The bottom line, a win is a win. It’s in the win column, doesn’t matter what the score is. It’s a win. I’ll take the win, no matter what, no matter how bad you played. It was good football between two good teams.
HPW: I don’t think this is an issue, but this is the time of the season when physical, academic, and emotional fatigue can kick in. Add in the perfect record, and it’s possible for any team of high school kids to become complacent.
Lee: I don’t think we’re content, not after last week, you can’t be. Everybody knows what we’ve got to do to keep undefeated, don’t turn over the ball.
HPW: Mililani just had a huge game with Bosco, and now another huge game with Saint Louis.
Lee: I think they’re going to be fired up. It’s a big game for them. They played Bosco now they want to show up like they can play. I’m expecting a tough battle, no question.