With the pain of how recent seasons ended still fresh on the minds of many players on St. Francis’ roster, the Saints weren’t going to let a milestone victory slip away on Friday night.
After a 40-6 victory over Kalaheo at Kailua, the Saints clinched the program’s first-ever state playoff berth.
“It’s a monumental day for St. Francis football,” head coach Kip Akana said. “That’s been our goal since we got here — to get a seat at the table at the state tournament and we’ve accomplished that today.”
The St. Francis football program has risen quickly since its inauguration in 2013 and came close in each of the past two seasons. Both ended with losses to Damien in the ILH title game. Last year’s game was especially agonizing for the Saints, a 13-12 loss to the Monarchs.
“It’s a big step for us. First time we’re going to states, it’s a blessing. This team has a special bond and I believe we can take it this year,” said junior Shepherd Kekahuna, who finished with a touchdown on each side of the ball on Friday. “Last year, we should have took it. … It was a good team though, we just never had that push at the end but this year, we got it.”
The spot in the state tournament won’t come with an ILH title, as Pac-Five is the league’s only other Division II team. Still, St. Francis will happily take the prolonged season.
At 7-0, the Saints sealed their postseason fate with two regular season games remaining. Akana says he hasn’t decided how to balance rest and reps for his players.
“Myself and the coaches, we’ll huddle (Saturday) and see what we’ll do since there’s still some games,” Akana said. “Today there was a San Diego State coach out here and a bunch of my kids are trying to earn scholarships. We’ll see.”
Friday night also marked the return of star running back Jonan Aina-Chaves in the starting lineup. Although the junior ran the ball for 11 times for 34 yards in a 13-0 win over Kaimuki last week, it was still in a limited role.
Against the Mustangs, he rushed for 144 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 67 yards, including a 50-yard pass from Bubba Akana for a touchdown.
“This is my first true game back starting at running back. It just felt good. Just gotta keep working with my line and getting the flow back,” said Aina-Chaves, who has been dealing with a high right ankle sprain for the past three weeks.
“I was real hungry. I couldn’t practice and I just had to do therapy on my leg and rehab, all of that. When I first ran, it just felt awkward. I just had to get used to it.”
Aina-Chaves was also the leading rusher on the 2017 team that fell short to Damien, finishing the season with a state-leading 2,080 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore. Although he won’t be able to exact revenge on the Monarchs this year since they’re in Division I, he’ll have to find redemption with a state title.
Step one was completed on Friday night.
“It feels real good. The whole school is all pumped now,” he said. “We’re going on the bus yelling all the way back to our school.”