(9:50 p.m. Adds AJ Bianco quote.)
Three hundred prospective varsity, junior varsity and intermediate football players are showing up on the slope of Kalaepohaku for conditioning work daily.
Saint Louis has rebuilt its prized football program and then some, and the ascension continues. The Crusaders are on the brink of traveling to Nevada in two months to play powerhouse Bishop Gorman. The date is set for Aug. 20.
“We’re finalizing the contract. We’ve accepted the terms,” Saint Louis coach Ron Lee said. “Home and home games.”
The two powerhouse programs last met two seasons ago. Saint Louis prevailed, 31-19, at Aloha Stadium.
“We want to dominate. We dominated them my sophomore year in 2019,” Crusaders right tackle La‘akea Kapoi said. “Coach Rob (Crowell, the offensive line coach) said they’re a way better team than they were two years ago. It’s time to prove we’re the better team again.”
Saint Louis won the last four Open Division state championships prior to the cancellation of the 2020 football season. Before flying to Las Vegas, scrimmages with Moanalua, Kailua and Kaimuki are on the docket in late July.
“We don’t have a preseason game for Aug. 5 or 6,” Lee noted. “We’re looking for somebody.”
On Aug. 13, the Crusaders will play at Campbell in a preseason matchup. Then they fly out.
“Bishop Gorman has a great team, a lot of five-star guys. It’s great for us facing someone of that caliber,” said Lee, who has coached at the prep and college levels since 1969.
Quarterback A.J. Bianco is among the many Crusaders looking forward to the trip.
“I’m super excited. I just saw the rankings and they’re the No. 13 team in the nation (on MaxPreps). Just being able to play competition at that high a level is going to show where we stack up,” Bianco said.
An earlier plan to play nationally-ranked Mater Dei fell through. The game had been pencilled in as part of a doubleheader hosted by St. John Bosco. However, the logistics didn’t fit. Going to Nevada is a significantly better situation for Saint Louis.
“We’re going to try to get everybody there, and we don’t like to cut,” Lee said. “We’re paying for our hotel and transportation. Bishop Gorman is giving us part of the gate.”
Saint Louis has played out-of-state programs over the years, but according to Lee, the timing is different.
“I don’t remember going in preseason to the mainland. This is the first one. We’re really looking for to the experience of traveling and playing,” he said. “We want to start playing some of the top teams in the country whether we bring them here or go on the road.”
Kapoi has 20 scholarship offers, all coming after the first lockdown began in March of 2020.
“Yeah, it’s always good to travel instead of just playing the same teams over and over every year. Especially for us seniors, it’ll help us get ready for the next level,” he said.
The offensive line could be the foundation of the ’21 Crusaders. The potential starting five could be left tackle Dakota Brown, left guard Po‘okela Kahawai, center Ethan Spencer, right guard Jonah Savaiinaea and right tackle Kapoi. Savaiinaea committed to Arizona on Wednesday.
“We have a chance to have five or six linemen with D-I scholarships,” Lee said. “Right now, we’ve got three. Dakota Brown, he’s a good one, too. He’s 6-5, 300 pounds with great feet. He’s going to be a good one.”
The competition in the trenches is major. A newcomer, Gannon Lauer, transferred from Kauai.
“He’s 6-5, 290. He’ll get offers. He’s a good kid, good feet. He’ll get more exposure here,” Lee said. They’re all fighting for that spot at left tackle. The way I’m watching these guys in the spring, the scrimmages and now, they’re great linemen with really good feet, good size, long arms, good height. Really, really good prospects.”
Lee’s aversion to cutting players means there is quite the surplus. On the intermediate level alone, Saint Louis has 180 players at conditioning workouts. He came up with an idea to field a second varsity team, much like I-AA teams in other sports, to play Division II football with other private schools and public schools.
“What we’re looking at is maybe keeping 65, 70 guys on the Open (Division roster). We have numbers,” Lee said. “Our ‘B’ team would be made up of some freshmen and sophomores.”
The idea, Lee said, was rejected by the OIA. The public-school league already had crossover games during the regular season with ILH teams — without counting those games in their OIA standings. Lee is looking for a way to get all of his players a chance to participate.
The OIA already has a relatively full schedule without adding a second Saint Louis team to Division II or even Division I. Then again, ‘B’ squads from Saint Louis and, perhaps, Kamehameha, would be positive for the gate. A vast majority of interleague games — more than 90 percent — have been played at OIA sites.
Either way, Saint Louis and many coaches across Oahu are filling in their calendars with scrimmages and preseason games. This, while an official football season has yet to be announced by leagues in Hawaii.
“We can’t wait for the OIA. We have to start scheduling games. If we go all-ILH, we play Punahou and Kamehameha two times, maybe the others (D-I Damien and ‘Iolani, D-II Pac-Five) once, and play a few more games,” Lee said.
Prior to the 2019 matchup, Saint Louis and Bishop Gorman met once, in ’12. The Gaels outscored the Crusaders, 52-40, at Aloha Stadium.