Following a season that got off to a slow start, it seemed only fitting that another slow start doomed the Saint Louis Crusaders in Thursday’s 49-14 loss to Kahuku in the Open Division title game of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships.
“Tough one to swallow for sure,” Saint Louis quarterback AJ Bianco said. “This [game] is what you work (for), but we just have to bounce back. Hopefully the boys learn from this and can bounce back.”
Before rolling their way to the final, Saint Louis opened the season with an up-and-down 2-3 record. A loss to out-of-state opponent Bishop Gorman on Aug. 20, more than four months ago, and two more to in-state rival Kamehameha had the Crusaders looking for answers early. With the season on the line, the team achieved what they couldn’t tonight: bounce back and run the table. Saint Louis found their groove in the ILH playoff, beating Punahou and twice taking down Kamehameha to fight back to another state playoff appearance.
“This team, we never quit. No matter what,” Bianco said.
The Crusaders needed the same push tonight, but instead saw a short-lived comeback cut short by Kahuku’s huge second-half surge.
From the beginning, it was clear that Kahuku was in the driver seat. After having a punt blocked to open the championship clash, the Crusaders watched the Red Raiders sprint off to three consecutive first-quarter scores, including Malosi Lefau’s 29-yard pick-6 off of a Bianco pass. Meanwhile, Saint Louis continued to struggle with incompletions and the relentless Kahuku pass rush. The Crusaders converted just three first downs in the opening period, never managing to move the chains twice in a single drive.
After watching Kahuku score their fourth unanswered touchdown to begin the second quarter, Saint Louis finally buckled down. The Crusaders put together their first sustained drive, moving the chains four times, one more than they had all of the first quarter. The team drove 62-yards down the field, before running back Boston Opetaia put the ball in the end zone with a 2-yard scoring run.
The defensive unit played their part, forcing a Kahuku three-and-out on the next drive to set up another Crusader score. Following another 60+-yard drive, Saint Louis finally cut the early deficit in half on Bianco’s 46-yard touchdown toss to slot back Trech Kekahuna. The Red Raiders turned it over on downs just before the half, and it looked like the Crusaders were well on their way back into the game.
The third quarter quickly shut down that notion. A 61-yard Kahuku touchdown on a screen pass from QB Jason Mariteragi to Kainoa Carvalho set the tone for a Red Raider second half that saw them score three times unanswered to put the game away. The three Kahuku scoring drives came one after another, while the three ensuing Saint Louis drives ended in two turnovers and a punt.
With the game squarely put away, Bianco did not see action in the fourth quarter, finishing with 143 passing yards on 11-for-20 passing in three quarters of work. He had a touchdown throw, but it was shadowed by a pair of interceptions. Bianco found success when looking for Kekahuna, who was the team’s receiving leader with 82 yards on four catches. 46 of his receiving yards came on the touchdown grab from Bianco. Jaysen Peters-deLaura followed with 52 yards on six receptions.
Instead, backup quarterback Kauna’oa Kamakawiwo’ole led the team into the final frame. Like Bianco before him however, Kamakawiwo’ole could do nothing against the energized Red Raider defense. His interception in the final three minutes made way for Kahuku to run out the clock and seize the Open Division crown.