Another time, another place, almost another lifetime.
It has only been five months, if that, since St. Francis ceased to exist as a high school. The football program, once proud and sturdy, had risen through the ranks as the biggest, possibly most athletic Division II program in the state and was unbeaten. A tiny school in Manoa Valley, ranked in the statewide Top 10, without even a home field to call its own.
The final season of Saints football came to an abrupt end due to administrative oversight, nearly every win being forfeited due to an ineligible player. For some fans, it’s perfectly fair. For Saints supporters, the 2018 season remains one of perfection, not a row of L’s on the ledger.
Today, former Saint safety Shepherd Kekahuna and wide receiver Chase Akana are Roosevelt Rough Riders. Offensive lineman Faaope Laloulu and quarterback-turned-running back Jonah Aina-Chaves are Farrington Governors. Running back Jonan “Bubbah” Aina-Chaves, Jonah’s brother, became a Campbell Saber. Other Saints wound up at different schools as well.
Roosevelt is heading to the D-II state tournament, a dream that eluded the former Saints despite their success. Laloulu is one game away from reaching the Open Division state tourney. A loss for Farrington against Campbell on Friday in the OIA third-place game would end their quest, and close the book on the roller-coaster route that Laloulu, Jonan Aina-Chaves and his former teammates endured. The same, of course, is true for Bubbah Aina-Chaves, who will tote the pigskin hoping his Sabers will eliminate the Govs. The third and final state-tournament berth is at state.
Cost of tuition was a factor, but at St. Francis, there was assistance.
“We didn’t have that much money when I was going to St. Francis, they gave us scholarships, Ope, Bubbah and me,” Kekahuna said. “We were paying, like, $600 (per month).”
Tuition at St. Francis was roughly double that amount, so every bit helped immensely.
Cost was also a factor for current, but injured, senior safety Aalona Monteilh while he was a another school, Saint Louis. He transferred to Roosevelt two seasons ago and became a mainstay in the secondary.
For Kekahuna, Laloulu and Aina-Chaves, there was a twist along the way. As their junior year neared its close, and with the ILH permitting St. Francis student-athletes to transfer within the league and play immediately, the biggest door opened: three-time defending champion of the Open Division, Saint Louis.
“They were talking to us. We were supposed to go, but because we played in that bowl game, we couldn’t,” Kekahuna said.
They had played in an all-star game, the Rep 50, and ILH rules prohibit any player with eligibility from participating in exhibitions. Transferring to Saint Louis or any other ILH school, was no longer viable.
Kekahuna had already enrolled at Roosevelt, joining his old pal Monteilh. Roosevelt (9-2) is having one of its finest seasons, and Kekahuna is producing big plays on defense, offense and special teams.
“It would’ve been an option,” Kekahuna said. “I was already here. My family didn’t want me to go.”
That was in the spring, when so many questions were floating in the air above St. Francis’ bucolic campus.
“Saint Louis is a good team, coached very well and the quarterback (Jayden de Laura) there was really pushing me to get there,” Kekahuna said.
Of the former Saints who scattered to new schools, Laloulu, at 6 feet, 7 inches and 340 pounds is the only one with an FBS scholarship offer so far. He committed to Oregon on June 8.
Kekahuna could qualify soon. He has a 3.7 cumulative grade-point average and will take the SAT in November. He is used to responsibilities on the field as a safety, linebacker, kick returner and running back. He’s on track to become a qualifier for the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Preparing for Kaimuki in the OIA D-II final on Saturday at Aloha Stadium is all that is of concern now. Spending time with family visiting from the mainland, including his grandfather, Joseph Kekahuna.
They flew in to see him play in the OIA semifinal matchup with Waialua, when he ran back a punt for a TD and played running back, scoring two more times.
“They told me that they’re very proud of me because they got to see me play one more time before they go. That’s all I wanted to do, make them proud,” Kekahuna said.
Playing for the resurgent Rough Riders, leaving a legacy, it was all part of the plan, maybe.
“I wouldn’t say it was destiny. I would rather say blessed because coming here made me find new things about myself. It made me a better person on and off the field,” Kekahuna said. “The bond here is just crazy.”
He credits his mentors and coaches.
“Coach Ant (Anthony Aalona) pushes me to be better every day. Coach Kawika (Kaleikau) keeps me in check and all the coaches give me reasons to play. Coach Kip (Akana) has been with me for 10 years and he was such a big role model in my life. Coach Blaze (Aina-Chaves) pushed me and worked with me to be the man I am today,” Kekahuna said.
It’s not just football players from St. Francis who scattered to new schools. Basketball standout Kordel Ng is at Kamehameha, which might be the No. 1 team in the first preseason poll next month. Members of the D-II boys volleyball state championship team are also at new schools, as are coaches and athletes from all of the Saints’ sports. Kekahuna still has strong ties to his former teammates.
“I stay in touch with them. We played ball ever since the young days and we stayed with each other through everything and went everywhere together,” he said. “I just wish the best for them, and to ball out on the field.”