In a game where each team looked to be the better one at various points, it was Saint Louis who would come out the victors.
The Crusaders’ 27-25 victory over Mililani in the Open Division semifinals of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships will send them back to a fifth straight title game, having won the last four.
“Just super excited,” Saint Louis quarterback AJ Bianco said after the game. “We’ve been waiting two years for this. I couldn’t be with a better group of guys. We’ve been through a lot this year, ups and downs. Next Thursday, it all comes down to that.”
Bianco led the victorious Crusaders with 179 passing yards on 14-for-22 passing. Bianco’s leading receiver was Mason Muaau, who finished with 72 yards on five catches, while Trech Kakahuna and Jaysen Peters-de Laura added 43 and 40 receiving yards respectively. Bianco also led Saint Louis in ground yards, racking up 62 yards on 16 carries. Keola Apduhan wasn’t far behind with 50 rush yards on nine carries. Bianco and Apduhan each had a touchdown carry.
On the other side, Mililani’s Emana Tarape led the way with a game-best 190 yards on 14-for-28 passing. He also had a pair of touchdown tosses, but threw a critical interception late in the game. Kapono Ho’okano-Sallas was his quarterback’s top target, collecting four passes for a team-high 68 receiving yards. Gavin Hunter and Raymond Roller added 47 and 43 receiving yards to round out the top three Trojan receivers. Nehemiah Timoteo was the game’s overall rushing leader with 106 yards on 18 carries.
The third time proved to be the charm for the Crusader defense on Mililani’s game-opening drive. Twice Saint Louis had a chance to get off the field, and twice they couldn’t capitalize. So the Trojans rumbled on. On the eighth play of the drive, Timoteo put the ball on the turf for the second time, and this time, luck would side with the Crusaders. Not much would come of the early turnover, as an offensive penalty doomed the inaugural Saint Louis drive.
Mililani found themselves on the wrong end of a turnover once again, this time directly leading to Saint Louis points. Crusaders linebacker Blaze Holani burst through the line and swatted the Mililani punt. Teammate Iona Purcell was in the right place at the right time, recovering the loose ball in the end zone for the game-opening score.
The Trojan’s response to the score came in the form of a long 13-play drive. The extended drive looked to have stalled early, as Tarape’s pass, which would have been short of the line to gain anyway, fell through his receiver’s hands on third and long. Mililani got a second chance when a Saint Louis defender ran into the punter. The Trojans were again bailed out four plays later, when a Crusader offsides penalty helped Mililani convert a fourth-and-1 as the game headed into the second quarter.
After three straight Mililani runs up the middle to start the second, the Crusaders defense stacked the box in anticipation of another carry. The Trojans didn’t let that fact slip by them, as Tarape found a streaking Ho’okano-Sallas down the right sideline for a 31-yard touchdown catch to make it 7-7.
On the next drive, Mililani turned to the proven formula from the prior drive. Timoteo and Tavian Hallums were called upon to tote the ball on six plays of the eight-play drive. After crossing into Saint Louis territory, the Crusaders again chose to stack the box against the run, and Tarape again burned them deep, finding a wide-open Roller for a 43-yard catch-and-run score to take their first lead of the game.
Saint Louis wouldn’t go quietly, driving down the field on 11 plays for a 24-yard Lason Napuunoa field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 at the half.
The halftime break seemed to awaken something in Saint Louis. Suddenly, the passes started connecting, and the running lanes looked wider. Bianco led the way in this momentum shift, carrying and passing the Crusaders’ down the field on the second half’s opening drive. On the eight-play drive, Bianco ran or threw the ball seven times, including the capper, a 9-yard touchdown run.
Saint Louis continued their turn of fortune on their next drive, again heavily featuring Bianco. This time however, it was Apduhan who provided the finishing touch, putting the Crusaders up 24-14 on a 9-yard scoring run. Meanwhile, the Saint Louis defense did their part in shutting the Trojans down, holding them to just three points in the third quarter. A chance to extend the Saint Louis lead in the fourth quarter was missed, as Napuunoa’s 41-yard field goal attempt into the wind drifted left of the goal posts.
Mililani grabbed the chance to turn momentum around, scoring after just three plays on Timoteo’s 12-yard rumble to the endzone. After watching the Crusaders take over the game to start the second half, the Trojans decided it was time to take a risk to keep the season alive. Trailing by one, Mililani coach Rod York opted to send the offense back out to try for two. The decision turned out to be the correct one, as receiver John Herold-Namu found Tarape in the end zone for the conversion and the lead.
Despite the earlier misfire, Saint Louis didn’t hesitate to turn back to Napuunoa in a critical situation. After a Crusader drive stalled in Mililani territory, Napuunoa was again called into action. He made the most of his immediate chance at redemption, nailing a 38-yard field goal to give the lead back to Saint Louis.
With the game now in its final moments, Saint Louis needed one final push. That push turned out to be defensive back Kawaihinano Kalaukoa. In fact, Kalaukoa provided two highlight plays that clinched the Crusaders’ return to the state final. The first came after Napuunoa’s go-ahead field goal. Facing a fourth-and-long with the game on the line, Mililani’s Tarape was forced into making a hurried throw downfield. The wayward pass sailed over the Trojan receivers, right into the waiting hands of Kalaukoa. Mililani had one final chance to take the game, but Tarape’s pass on the final play was batted down by none other than Kalaukoa to end it.
Jonathan Chen, Star-Advertiser