The one-week suspension of Saint Louis linebacker Nick Herbig is the only guarantee when the top-ranked Crusaders meet No. 2 Punahou on Friday night at Aloha Stadium.
Punahou (9-1) has its back to the wall as the second-place team during the regular season. The Buffanblu need a win tonight, which would make them the playoff-tournament winner. Then the teams would have a winner-take-all championship game next week.
“But we don’t want that,” Saint Louis coach Cal Lee said.
When the teams met during the regular season, Saint Louis trailed 16-6 at the half, the only time Saint Louis has trailed all year. This deep into the 2019 campaign, there is little left to hide.
“We know what they have now. Everyone knows who (Vincent) Terrell is. He’s shown it week after week,” Lee said. “Their quarterback (John-Keawe Sagapolutele) has gotten better week after week. They’re really loaded offensively. You got to stop both (players).”
Offensive innovation and emotional discipline will be on display, once again. But this ILH playoff game will feature the two best defensive units in the state will be in lockdown mode on Friday night.
Punahou has relied on its defensive talent and cohesion, and that commitment intensified with the week-two knee injury of senior quarterback Hugh Brady. For longtime coach Kale Ane and his staff, it has been a title trophy dry spell since 2014.
After all these years, this might be their best chance to dethrone mighty Saint Louis. Punahou has not played in the state tourney since ’16, when the HHSAA allowed the ILH Open Division runner-up to participate in what began as a six-team format.
The ledger since 2010 for Punahou:
2018: 7-3, lost to Saint Louis 45-21 (ILH final)
2017: 5-3, lost to Kamehameha 44-30 (ILH playoff)
2016: 7-3, lost to Saint Louis 28-14 (ILH final). Lost to Kapolei 33-20 (state tournament)
2015: 8-2, lost to Saint Louis 27-23 (ILH final)
2014: 8-1, def. Saint Louis 35-28 (ILH final). Def. Kahuku 13-10 (state semifinal), lost to Mililani 53-45 (state final)
2013: 11-0, def. Kamehameha 38-12 (ILH final). Def. Farrington 48-6 (state semifinal), def. Mililani 28-22 (state final)
2012: 8-3, won ILH. Def. Mililani 49-19 (state semifinal), lost to Kahuku 42-20 (state final)
2011: 11-3, won ILH. Def. Baldwin 35-0 (state semifinal), lost to Kahuku 30-24 (state final)
2010: 6-3, third in ILH.
2014 may seem like yesterday, but nobody on the varsity roster w was on that team.
“I think it’s ancient history for all our kids. I remember those kids and their families (on the ‘14 team),” said Ane, now in his 21st season as head coach. “You move on and look forward to playing what’s in front of you. All those teams, the kids were resilient and the staffs did a great job. They were very mature about the process of preparing. I feel the same way about this team. They know what’s ahead of them. They know it’s a do-or-die situation.”
Punahou has shut out five of its 11 opponents. Only three foes have managed to score more than 13 points. Alaka‘i Gilman has expertly navigated his crew from the safety position. The unit is largely unheralded, but features standout run-stoppers like LB Legend Matautia (6-0, 240) and LB/S Dillon Lundberg (6-0, 208), and DL Hiram deFries-Saronitman (6-0, 230) and Siupelimani Uluave (6-1, 203). CB Jarrin Sato and sophomore DE Tevarua Tafiti have become playmakers.
The irony is that only one of Punahou’s defensive players has scholarship offer: Gilman, who committed to Washington State.
Meanwhile, nationally-ranked Saint Louis (9-0) has all the platitudes that come with four consecutive ILH crowns. There three-time Open Division state champions have won 35 games in a row, including a 31-19 win over nationally-ranked Bishop Gorman (Nev.) eight weeks ago.
The four-wide offense orchestrated by longtime guru Ron Lee has been limited to less than 34 points only twice, by Kahuku (28-0) and Punahou. The defense has been consistent and cunning. The only teams to score more than 19 points did so in blowouts: Campbell (48-27), Mililani (54-21) and Waianae (56-26).
This may be the most nationally-recognized Crusader defense ever. LBs Jordan Botelho (22 offers) and the currently idle Herbig (16) are as hungry as they were before the letters and calls piled up. Defensive lineman Stanley McKenzie (6-2, 266) has led the trench men. The two-sport athlete hopes to play baseball in addition to football when he arrives at Cal next season.
Safety Kamo‘i Latu (eight offers, Utah commit) is another lurking strategist with range and physicality. The depth of the defensive unit extends to ballhawking LB Darrell Masaniai (6-2, 210), who has three offers, and DB Kaiser Cambra-Cho (6-2, 190), who committed to Army.
In the middle of traffic, LBs Lawai Brown (Central Michigan commit) and junior Mason Tufaga (nine offers) have negated and stuffed the inside gaps.
Punahou’s offense has adjusted to life without Brady. Freshman John-Keawe Sagapolutele (1,902 yards, 14 TDs) has thrown just six picks and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. The rise of senior Vincent Terrell has been stunning. Terrell has rushed for 967 yards at 6.1 per carry, scoring 13 TDs, and his versatility as a pass catcher (12 receptions, 135 yards, two TDs) and returner is matched by few. His biggest kick return was a 90-yard TD to open Saint Louis-Punahou I.
“I think he’s a good player, no question about it,” Lee said. “Hard guy to get ahold of, speed, agility. He can run. That’s a tough assignment trying to contain their running game.”
The Buffanblu have refrained from greed via the air most of the time. Koa Eldredge (BYU commit) leads the way with 61 catches for 744 yards and four TDs.
“There’s a big concern there, but you can’t necessarily forget the other guys, as well. Everybody looks at their top receiver, anybody would, but this isn’t pass league where you worry about one guy,” Lee said. “The running back, the other receivers, they can catch the ball, too.”
Eldredge’s constant threat as one of the state’s best yards-after-catch playmakers has opened up acreage for Rayden Kiaaina-Caires (42, 640, five), Moku Dancil-Evans (29, 411, three) and Christopher Paige (22, 340, four).
Saint Louis saw this, fell behind, and ultimately shut down the prolific offense. Punahou scored just three points after halftime in the first meeting.
The Buffanblu defense will have its biggest test. Saint Louis will always want to run the ball given just four, five or six defenders in the box. The Crusaders may be at their most unpredictable in five-wide sets. Lee, the offensive coordinator, went to empty backfields often in 2017, when then-QB Chevan Cordeiro was the team’s leading rusher.
Jayden de Laura is more physical as a premier dual-threat QB, but has learned to dodge away and run out of bounds as a senior. The Washington State commit has passed for 2,715 yards and 26 TDs with just six picks, completing an insane 74 percent of his attempts. His passer rating of 203.4 surpasses that of former Crusader Marcus Mariota. He also received a fresh offer from USC this week.
Like Cordeiro, de Laura is the team’s leading rusher (280 yards, four TDs). Most of his 64 rushing attempts have come on scramble opportunities. Saint Louis has 219 total rushes, running the ball in less than 44 percent of its snaps.
With fumbling issues in the first matchup with Punahou, de Laura’s timing with his receivers are as reliable, or more. Slotback Koali Nishigaya (56 catches, 831 yards, eight TDs) has enjoyed single coverage and open pastures. Speedster and Michigan commit Roman Wilson (36, 625, eight) patiently awaits single coverage, as well. Another senior, UCLA commit Matt Sykes (32, 571, seven), has been healthy all season, creating a trinity of weapons in Saint Louis’ route scheme.
Senior Isaac Silva (38, 445, one) has produced a strong second half of the season. The talented hoopster has become another key weapon for de Laura.