The 2015 ILH regular season in Division II ended with Damien beating Pac-Five to earn the league title and automatic berth in the state tournament.
It gave the Monarchs the title of “champions” which was well deserved. But there was another team in the league that could make a case it was playing the best football of anyone at the end of the season.
A Pac-Five win over Damien would have forced a three-way playoff, which would have kept the season alive for the hottest team in the league. St. Francis, which won a program-best four games in 2015, earned its first ILH win in 17 tries defeating Pac-Five 12-9. A week later, St. Francis manhandled that same Damien squad, 21-6, to finish 2-2 in league play. With only four league games making up the entire ILH season and no playoff format besides a regular-season tie, the Saints had to settle for two wins to end the season but no more as Damien marched on with a 3-1 league record.
“We were hoping to come through the back door, but we learned a valuable lesson,” second-year coach Kip Akana said before practice on Wednesday. “It’s a short season — only four games — and there was no playoff last year.”
That will change this season. The regular season champion earns a bye in the playoff and will get two shots at beating the winner of the playoff between the second-place and third-place teams to clinch the league title and state tournament berth.
The Saints, who open their 2016 season on Saturday at Vidinha Stadium on Kauai, are a confident group. They lost only three starters from last season to graduation. Center Singilau Pututau, a first-team All-ILH selection last season, transferred to a school in Utah. Otherwise, the Saints are stacked with returning players.
Six ILH first-team all-stars return including OL/DL Supilani Mailei (6-1, 265), RB Tyson Shimabukuro (5-8, 200), DB/WR Micah Kalei (6-0, 180), LB/RB Destin Pakele (6-0, 220), DE/TE Takaamoatoa Lautaha (6-3, 240) and DB/WR/RB Pono Luis-Mateo (5-8, 175).
Shimabukuro, a junior, played a big role in St. Francis’ turnaround last season. He was injured in the second game of the year against Konawaena but came back for the final two games and rolled up 118 yards against Pac-Five and 109 yards in the win over Damien.
“He made a big improvement to the offense,” said Luis-Mateo, who ran for 175 yards and a touchdown last season.
The Saints didn’t throw the ball much last season, averaging 51.6 yards per game. Seventeen different players carried the ball last season with Shimabukuro missing games. He’ll likely get the bulk of the carries this year but the Saints have a lot of two-way players that can get touches and make plays.
Mailei, a senior, will team with Lautaha and Filosofia Mafua (6-3, 260) to put together an offensive line capable of competing with Division I teams. Lautaha already has a scholarship offer from Colorado State and Mailei, who will play both ways this season, is hoping to get a chance of his own at the next level.
“I’ve been training for the season because this is all we got,” Mailei said. “After senior year, that’s it for most guys, but I’m trying to get to college and do the work because football is the only way out.”
This is the fourth season of football at St. Francis since starting up the program in 2013. The team practices at Manoa District Park, about a mile from campus, and a lot of players are forced to walk while carrying their own pads since they don’t have a bus.
A few of the players do have cars and are able to drive. They are responsible for giving teammates rides to practice but be warned, it’s not easy to get a seat.
“I try to take as many guys as I can but whoever doesn’t fit has to walk,” Pakele said.
“I’ve got to tip my cap to these young kids,” Akana added. “With no field we’re already at a disadvantage. We don’t have a bus, we don’t have a locker room, we don’t have a field. It’s tough.”
Most of the kids have played football together since Pop Warner days. Akana, who coached some of his players with the Manoa Paniolos years ago, has stayed with them throughout the intermediate and now varsity levels. They’re a close-knit group with an eye on giving St. Francis something it has never had.
“(A championship) would be historic,” Luis-Mateo said. “From one year losing all of our games to taking states would be historic. It would be hard to believe.”