Sunday is a day of rest for football coaches.
Ron Lee gets a breather, but coordinating the Saint Louis Crusaders’ offense isn’t about clocking in and clocking out. For more than four decades, as a coordinator or head coach, teaching the intricacies of the four-wide attack has been his passion.
In every molecule and fiber of his being, Lee thrives in the process. He and the offensive staff bring a core of 22 pass catchers to the sacred four-wide, or run and shoot, commandments. It is written in stone, as it has since the days when Lee learned the blueprint from Mouse Davis.
In 2019, with three consecutive Open Division state titles in hand, Saint Louis has prepared. And prepared. No other Open team has waited this long for a game. Lee chatted with Hawaii Prep World on July 28, a day after the Crusaders played in two scrimmages, studied the tape. It is a Sunday, so Lee shares his football gospel.
HPW: There is so much talent across the board at Saint Louis, but the offensive line has to be the biggest question mark in preseason.
Ron Lee: We lost four starters. Four really good ones. Our lone returnee is Matagi DuPont (6-0, 280, Sr.).
HPW: What position?
Ron Lee: Center. This will be his third year as a starter. Very solid. He’s a good one.
HPW: So who are the new starters?
Ron Lee: At left tackle we have Kalan Ellis. He’s a junior. He got hurt about the middle of the (2018) season and he was out, but he was coming along. I tell you, he’s a big young man, 6-4, 330. Moves well. He’ll help us a lot.
HPW: Who’s at left guard.
Ron Lee: We have Kahekili Catrett (6-5, 350, Sr.). At right guard, we have Eric Hatico (Sr.). He’s played a little bit at guard and center. At right tackle, Nalu Liftee (Sr.). He hurt his hand and had a ligament torn last week. He had surgery. He’s out four to six weeks. He was a backup tackle last year.
HPW: Who will step in at right tackle?
Ron Lee: Laakea Kapoi (So.). He’s doing a nice job. 6-3, 280. Nice-sized kid.
HPW: And who else is in the rotation?
Ron Lee: We have Jonah Nawainaea, 6-3, 270, only a sophomore. Dakota Brown, 6-3, 260, sophomore.
HPW: Man, the reload is in effect.
Ron Lee: This group is young, but good feet, good size and great work ethic for young guys. That was kind of the big question mark, but for the past couple of weeks, they’re moving along nicely.
HPW: Getting everyone in sync when the season starts so early, that has to be a major challenge for every program. In the old days, there were two- or three-a-days in August, not regular-season games.
Ron Lee: I remember when we started late August. The kids don’t really have the summer like they used to have to. First week of August there’s games. They don’t really have a summer. We start July 15, that’s no summer. In the ILH, we had a three-week bye before the (state) playoffs.
HPW: The flip side of that is Saint Louis has this early gap without a game until week three, two weeks after the rest of the state has their first (preseason) game.
Ron Lee: We need the time to work. We’ve been taking it slow working on fundamentals. The next week is a whole new week where we can correct our mistakes.
HPW: Let’s go position by position. Quarterback Jayden de Laura got plenty of experience as a junior.
Ron Lee: We have competition. We give them quite a bit of reps since we don’t start until Aug. 15, and other positions too. We have 21, 22 receivers. They all get reps (at practice). Starting from this week, we’ve got to cut back. Luckily that’s our strength at wide receiver with Roman (Wilson), Matt (Sykes), Koali (Nishigaya) and those guys. Returnees who know the system so we’re able to develop some depth.
HPW: The depth at QB is strong.
Ron Lee: Yeah. We’ve got Connor Apo.
HPW: He’s a senior now?
Ron Lee: He’s a junior. He throws the ball well. He has improved a lot. He’s right in the thick of things.
HPW: You have AJ Bianco emerging, too.
Ron Lee: AJ’s doing a great job, but when we keep stats, Connor usually leads in the stats with completions. All three of them make mistakes, but that’s understandable this early. We scrimmaged Moanalua, which had disguises, things we don’t see in the Open. Really good DBs. They gave us some good looks, but our kids as young as they are could do a decent job. All three QBs are competing for the job. I think Jayden has the edge because of his all-around experience, maturity, can run and has a good arm. He’s still the leader right now, but the other two guys are coming along nicely.
HPW: So AJ is in the mix and Kekahi Graham is only a freshman, so he’s on JV?
Ron Lee: Yeah. AJ is very bright, a 4.0 student. He’s a decent athlete. I watched him play basketball this year, freshman on the varsity. He just knows how to play. He’s not as quick as he’s going to be, but he’s improved so much on his arm strength, getting rid of the ball quicker.
HPW: He looked good at the UH camp. There are big expectations for Jayden with the way he played last year as a first-year starter.
Ron Lee: He’s a lot better this season, way ahead of where he was the first year. He didn’t play his sophomore year (due to the ILH transfer rule). He’s already so much better all around, running the offense, his confidence. The receivers we have now, they get down the field now. That ball’s got to come out. It’s not easy, but he’s probably .500 right now on the deep balls. I’d like to see him a little higher. We can stretch the field not just with Roman and Matt, but Koali and Keanu Wallace.
HPW: Koali Nishigaya is widely regarded by his teammates as a guy who will break out. But is he really the funniest guy on the team?
Ron Lee: He’s not funny around us. He’s kind of quiet around us. He really has work ethic, He goes after everything 100 percent. Koali had a great camp, a great summer. He’s doing really well, too.
HPW: How about the other slotback?
Ron Lee: Isaac Silva. He’s a senior. Isaac is working hard, one of the starters. He’s really an outstanding kid, 4.5 student, looking at Yale and Harvard. Always working out at (basketball) summer league, busy as heck. He got hurt junior year, but he worked so hard, I think he’s going to have a good year. Not as quick as Koali, he’s still getting better, good speed, solid, tough kid.
HPW: Who else is in the rotation?
Ron Lee: At slotback we have Prince Solomon (Jr.). He’s got a hamstring. Runs track. Pookela Lewis. He’s in the hunt, too. Tama Rodrigues, up from JV. Trech Kekahuna-Kalawe. Only a freshman. He played intermediate last year, but he has just a great feel that a lot of guys don’t have. Like how George Ornellas and Gerald Welch knew where to run, where the windows are going to be. For that age, incredible.
HPW: Your wide receivers are wow.
Ron Lee: Matt is all set, he already committed to UCLA. He’s 100 percent. He came back (late in the ’18 season), which surprised everybody after he broke his femur. He came back with four or five games left, but he wasn’t at full speed. Oh man, now he’s at full speed, and he’s close to 6-4 now. Gets down the field, jumps. Great addition.
HPW: How’s your depth behind Matt on the left side?
Ron Lee: Makena Ramos-Kamaka (Jr.). He’s coming along nicely, 6-2, 6-3. Devon (Tauaefa), he can really run.
HPW: It’s amazing how great receivers develop wherever you coach. On the right side, Wilson made huge strides in the offseason and committed to Michigan.
Ron Lee: He is so fast, working so hard on his technique. When he masters his technique, he’ll be a force on the outside.
HPW: Who’s behind Roman?
Ron Lee: Keanu Wallace, Tashunka-Witco Cailing. He’s another good receiver, but he’s behind the starters. You should see the JVs. They’ve got a couple guys that are ninth graders that could play with us. Slots. They are so fast. de Laura’s brother is one. But it would be better for them to play JV, now that the games are with OIA.
HPW: The intermediate level is loaded, too, from what I hear.
Ron Lee: Intermediate, the quarterbacks, oh my goodness. The competition is wow. It’s going to be interesting.
HPW: Both sides lost players who transferred.
Ron Lee: We lost (wide receiver) Hunter (Apau). He went back to Waialua. He was competing (as a backup) on Matt’s side. Great kid. I’m sorry that he left. It’s a long ways (from Waialua to Saint Louis), and the tuition.
HPW: Talented running back Malosi Sam transferred to Mililani.
Ron Lee: Our new starter is Kainalu Tumpap. He’s back. Kaohu Kamakawiwo’ole is probably 6 feet now. Big tough kid. More of a power runner. The other guys are good blockers, too, with speed.
HPW: What’s one of the differences between last year’s team and this year’s?
Ron Lee: Last year’s group, things came pretty easy, but this group is hungry. We’re just worried about tomorrow’s practice, one day at a time.