With an erratic kicking game, top-ranked Saint Louis needed some kind of lift to get past No. 2 Punahou.
The Crusaders, ranked No. 6 nationally, got it from the smallest of their offensive starters. Slotback Koali Nishigaya came through with touchdown runs of 1 and 4 yards in the second half as Saint Louis rallied from a 16-6 deficit for a 25-19 win over the Buffanblu to secure sole possession of first place in ILH Open Division.
Nishigaya had already been one of the best pass catchers in the state and finished the game with seven receptions for 38 yards. But with a torrent of fumbling issues — Saint Louis lost the ball four times to the hard-hitting Buffanblu — they went to Nishigaya.
It was the first time since junior varsity that he got game snaps at running back.
“It was the defense (Punahou) was running. We knew what we had to do. We pounded the ball and it worked out,” Nishigaya said.
The senior is a compact 5 feet, 6 inches and 155 pounds with the kind of acceleration that elicits flashbacks of another deceptively powerful ballcarrier — former Roosevelt and Hawaii standout Chad Owens.
On his cutbacks, including the one on his second TD — which gave Saint Louis the lead for good — Nishigaya runs with leverage and a low center of gravity, right through taller defenders.
“I’m just grateful they gave me the opportunity. I played running back in intermediate, a little bit. But I’m just grateful to them, to be honest,” Nishigaya said.
He was highly successful inside the 5 as the single back in a formation that was elephant through and through. No wide receivers. That package has always been part of the offense, but Nishigaya hadn’t actually worked out at RB in it until Thursday. Even then, it was only a walk-through.
“Not full speed,” he said.
The move to Nishigaya at RB wasn’t about the team’s four fumbles, including two by QB Jayden de Laura, who was otherwise stupendous with 402 yards on 34-for-40 passing without a pick.
“We all make mistakes. We’re not perfect. It happens,” Nishigaya said.
The first TD, a 1-yard blast, cut Punahou’s lead to 16-12 with 5:33 left in the third quarter.
“I was stoked. That was my first rushing touchdown in my whole varsity career,” Nishigaya said.
The second TD came with just 3:36 left and broke a 19-all tie. One cut, bazooka though a gap. He flipped over a tackler and landed in the end zone.
“I had to adjust. It’s not always going to be there. I did a cutback and jumped over. All God right there,” he said.