From chapter one, the events unfolded like an old-fashioned mystery novel.
The predominant favorite, first-place Damien, airing the football out from the start.
The other faction, underdog St. Francis, refusing to conform. Battering ram. Patient. Eschewing this newfangled “forward pass” possibly because, as the great gridiron fundamentalist preacher Dick Tomey often said to the masses via the social media of the mid-1970s (television), “Three things happen when you pass the football, and two of them are bad.”
Those words echoed each Sunday afternoon and, sure enough, he was right. So the Saints kept battering. With Tyson Shimabukuro, a compact ball carrier, finding creases and momentary gaps, St. Francis kept pounding away.
By the second quarter, the plot thickened. The Saints had a 6-0 lead thanks to a defensive gem by cornerback Justus Paaluhi-Caulk. His pick-6 runback gave the Saints their only points of the first half. Damien came back and took a 7-6 lead going into halftime, but the elements were there. Damien was one step away from clinching the first-round title, sealing a spot in the ILH Division II title game, and yet the Saints were sticking to their blueprint. The ball stayed on the ground and the clock kept running.
There was No. 70, unlisted on the original Saints roster, doing his part with a sack of Damien’s talented junior QB, Marcus Faufata-Pedrina. That mystery man is Penisimani Haunga, a 5-foot-9, 250-pound two-way lineman who had worn No. 26 when the season began.
By the end of the third quarter, the story line was about possibility transforming into reality. Maybe. Makana Poole‘s 21-yard field goal had given St. Francis a 9-7 lead. Damien’s passing game was hot and cold, and little-known Chris Vanisi became a force on defense for the Saints. He had a sack early in the fourth quarter to help his team maintain momentum. Destin Pakele. Tevita Otuvaka. Takaamoatoa Lautaha. The defense was rock solid, but Vanisi brought an extra spark.
“Chris enrolled in August and he’s been practicing all this time,” Akana said. “The rule is you have to practice for 21 days. To see his hard work and opportunity pay off on the field, that’s why he was playing inspired. He gave our defense a boost.”
With a number of Saints playing both ways, they needed all the spark they could muster. But the seams were beginning to fray. Damien drove to the St. Francis 24 with less than 4 minutes remaining and got a 41-yard field goal by Kaimana Cameron. The Monarchs led 10-9 with 3:32 on the clock.
Moments later, a bad snap by St. Francis led to a safety. Damien led 12-9 with 2:18 to go, recovered the on-side kick and had the ball at the Saints’ 31-yard line. With just one time out, St. Francis was out of luck. All the unnecessary penalties, the botched coverage on Damien’s lone touchdown, a mishandled kickoff return, and even the ultra-conservative offensive game plan seemed moot by this point.
But in any game as close as this, execution is paramount. Damien lost focus. After St. Francis called its final time out, the Monarchs ran the ball out of bounds on a third-down play, stopping the clock at 1:16. It was the break of the game and, perhaps, the Saints’ season. The ensuing punt was partially blocked and St. Francis took over at its 35-yard line with 1 minute left.
No time outs.
Bubba Akana‘s passing chart read like this in the first 47 minutes of play:
26-yard completion #7
That lone completion to Scott McCleod was an anomaly, a long throw across the field and deep on the right sideline on the final play of the first half. It was one of the few times Coach Kip Akana and his staff were willing to break from the game plan. The stat box from 1952 — 38 rushing attempts, five pass attempts entering the final minute — showed that the Saints did what they could to stay in the game and save the legs of their Ironmen playing on offense, defense and special teams.
There was no evidence to indicate that they were remotely capable of covering 65 yards to the goal line, or even 40 yards to set up a potential game-tying field goal. The final chapter would probably be underwhelming. Bubba, the sophomore at quarterback, had basically been a handoff machine in those first 47 minutes.
“It’s hard for me to talk him about without sounding biased,” Coach Akana said. “He’s my son. We know he’s capable, but we have a good O-line and a stable of running backs, so we have him manage the game, don’t turn the ball over. For the most part, it worked.”
McCleod worked, too. He got free from a cornerback and Akana, the QB, launched a 30-yard strike down the right sideline. That surprised the cornerback and safety. The next play was a short out by McCleod, incomplete, but it set up the next shot. Akana rolled out of the pocket to the right and heaved a pass high and over the CB. McCleod hauled it in before being forced out at the 5-yard line.
Wembley Mailei‘s 5-yard run out of the wildcat, one on one with a defender, was simply overpowering. The Saints took the lead, 15-12, with 31 seconds left. Vanisi had one more spark left in him, batting down a pass during Damien’s last series. The Saints hung on for a key win.
“I feel for Coach Eddie (Klaneski) and his team. He prepares and works hard, and his team is well-coached. They were physical and matched us blow for blow. We feel fortunate to come away with a win over the defending ILH D-II champs,” Coach Akana said. “This win was ugly.”
For the Saints, ugly can be pretty. They operated the game plan; Shimabukuro, listed at 5-8 and 200 pounds, rushed for 132 yards on 27 carries.
“Tyson’s been running like this since seventh grade. He’s a workhorse. He got hurt last year in Konawaena, and he didn’t come back until the second round,” Akana said. “When he came back, we won the next two games and the season ended. We believe he’s arguably the best running back in the state.”
St. Francis now tied with Damien in the standings at 2-1. All the promise of their intermediate championship team of a few seasons back is now a few steps from becoming fulfilled. Things are steadily improving on and off the field. Over the summer, they got lockers for the first time. It’s not fancy or even standard-issue, but it works, just like the team.
Akana isn’t satisfied, naturally. The penalties. The mental errors. All correctible. He wants efficiency. Do the Saints have the minds of champions? He already knows his players have immeasurable heart.
“We don’t have a home field. We carry our gear one mile to Manoa field. We don’t make cuts. These are challenges for us, but we realize they’re blessings at the same time,” the coach said. “For all the things we could be envious of what other people have, we just change our players’ mentality. In the end, we can say we don’t have a lot, but we have each other.”
There will be more chapters.
“I think we will play Damien again. I’m sure it was a heartbreaking loss, but they’ll come back stronger,” Akana said. “We know we’d better be ready. They’ll be coming out like their hair’s on fire.”
Akana and his staff instill a special pride in competing from beginning to end.
“We have slow starts and come back. We are resilient,” he said. “We preach ‘four quarters.'”