Before Saint Louis took on Kahuku on Saturday, many observers considered it a stretch to believe the Crusaders could pull off an upset of the two-time defending state champions. I was among them, fairly firm among the consensus pegging the Red Raiders as preseason No. 1 and not fully convinced the Crusaders had gotten past last year’s disappointing 5-5 campaign.
Yes, beating Kahuku would be a stretch.
But that’s exactly what multi-weaponed Saint Louis did on offense in winning 45-24 — it stretched the field, horizontally and then vertically. With the win, Matt Wright’s team assumes the No. 1 ranking in the Star-Advertiser’s statewide poll of media and coaches … as it should, despite the second-year head coach’s protestations.
“At this point of the season we’re really emphasizing that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. All you can control is one day at a time, one play at a time. We’re looking at that not just from the doing-your-job standpoint, but also regarding humility,” Wright said in a phone interview Monday night. “For me, personally, I’d like the ranking to be a three or a four.”
One stumble and that’s what it will be — or lower, as ILH rivals Punahou and Kamehama lurk. So does Waianae, and Kahuku won’t be down long. Saint Louis gets a well-deserved bye after outscoring Baldwin and Kahuku 100-24. But Wright went right back to work.
“There’s some great teams in the ILH. We just got done breaking down Kamehameha,” Wright said. “They’ve got a great team and it looks like (Doug) Cosbie’s got them headed in the right direction. And Punahou, too. They’ve won the ILH two times in a row now.”
This week Wright and his staff — which still includes several members from the dynasty era of the 1980s and ’90s — will bring the Crusaders back to Earth before pumping them up for the Warriors on Aug. 30. Beating Kahuku is in the rearview.
“We reminded the players we’re not going to win the ILH with that game and we’re not going to get into the state tournament with that game,” Wright said.
But it’s still fun to analyze how it happened. One thing that stood out early was the Crusaders have so many weapons they didn’t even have to use their most talented playmaker early on. Receiver Devan Stubblefield turned out to be a game-breaker, but he didn’t get going until late in the first half; he wasn’t targeted much early on. Wright explained why.
“We were trying to figure out their (defensive) game plan. We knew they’d come with some pressure, maybe some double coverage on Dev. We threw some test plays at them. And we hit (Drew) Kobayashi, who left some touchdowns on the field, but he did a great job for a young sophomore,” Wright said. “Once we knew what they were doing it became all about execution. But we knew if we held the ball too long they’d get us with their great pressure.”
Early on, most of Ryder Kuhns’ passes were short ones designed to foil Kahuku’s pass pressure.
“Shots (deep to Stubblefield) were there, but I don’t think Ryder saw them,” Wright said. “We didn’t know at first if they were going to go two-high or one-high, so we wanted to get a feel for what they were trying to do. Early, we wanted to stretch them (horizontally) and relieve the pressure. Coach (June) Jones is the first to tell you, you want to set it up and then stretch vertically.”
After the slow start, Stubblefield caught a 30-yard touchdown pass right before halftime, and finished with game highs of six receptions and 117 yards. He also returned the second-half kickoff 50 yards.
Wright played linebacker at the University of Hawaii under Jones, and considers him a coaching mentor. Others are Wendell Look, Kevin Lempa, Greg McMackin, Tom Williams and Kurt Gouveia. He said Gouveia, the former Waianae, BYU and Washington Redskins star who won the championship at every level, taught him “the smart way to play linebacker” when he was a student assistant at UH. It seems to have translated to the Crusaders.
“On defense (against Kahuku) everything hinged on stopping the run,” Wright said. “We don’t have the biggest front like we have in the past, so it’s hard to go blow-for-blow with a team like Kahuku. But we got some great leadership from our seniors on defense in the fourth quarter. We didn’t do anything crazy schematically, just base defense and we got some key stops in the fourth quarter. We got them into a passing situation and their quarterback is not used to going through all the progressions.”
Wright’s finally off the hot seat, but lose one game and, to some alumni, he’s right back on it; that’s just the way it is at Saint Louis, still a victim of its own success that included winning the last 13 Prep Bowls and the first state championship — an impossible standard was set.
Although he’s been on the football staff nine years and worked at Saint Louis the past four, Wright is from ‘Iolani, so he is scrutinized and criticized even more. It’s good to see him having some fun.
“I love what I do. I love coaching and I love working with kids,” he said. “We had challenges last year — it was a huge learning curve for me.”
Wright recognizes that it’s a long way to the state championship. But after Saturday’s big win, even he couldn’t help but think ahead to a possible rematch with Kahuku and coach Reggie Torres.
“I told Reg we gotta do this again in November,” Wright said.