Like the wind, momentum is a fickle fiend one minute.
A precious friend the next.
Kamehameha’s second narrow in over Saint Louis in as many tries betrayed all kinds of trends and theories. After all, ILH sports and academics are all about immense and intense competition. Iron sharpens, but in ILH football, it is that shot to the gut, the solar plexus, that has defined the Open Division.
Now, with a come-from-behind 34-31 win over Saint Louis, Kamehameha (3-1) can rest for a week while Punahou (1-3) and Saint Louis (2-3, 2-2 ILH) ravage one another in next week’s opening round of the playoffs. Finishing first in the regular season nets a reward that every coach and player dreams of. Even Kamehameha running back Noah Bartley, a true gamer who loves every game, practice and play, relishes the coming bye weekend.
“It feels good. I feel like we still have some stuff to clean up. This one-week bye is really helpful for us,” said Bartley, who rushed for a career-high 219 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. “We just had to lock in, kick in a gear and stay together. We just wanted to stay calm and collected, make sure that everyone’s in the right spots to do what we needed to do.”
After Kealii Ah Yat’s pinpoint 20-yard strike to Blaze Kamoku on a post route — on third and 13 — Bartley and his blocking receivers and linemen came up big. His 25-yard touchdown run, with a strong resemblance to peak LeVeon Bell during his Steelers years, gave Kamehameha the lead. It was poetry by a smashmouth offensive line and normally bulldozing running back, getting out wide left as a unit, where Bartley displayed his tremendous vision and agility, waiting for creases to open up. He cut back at the perfect moment twice en route to the goal line. A Saint Louis defense that sometimes limited Bartley to two- and three-yard gains could do little to stop Kamehameha’s ground attack.
Kamehameha coach Abu Ma‘afala believes the Crusaders allowed the score to happen for time management purposes.
“Credit to Saint Louis. They were smart. The thing opened up like Red Sea because they told their guys, ‘Let ‘em score’ because they wanted to have two minutes on the clock. We should’ve told (Bartley) to fall down on the 1-yard line,” Ma‘afala said. “They let us score. It was an intentional go-ahead score so Saint Louis could come out and have the last play. Thank God our defense came through.”
The teams combined for five possessions in the second half. Kamehameha had just two as Saint Louis turned the tables. When they met a month ago, it was the Warriors who held the ball for six minutes to start the third quarter, draining the momentum from Saint Louis’ potent offense. On Friday night, AJ Bianco guided the Crusaders on a 6-minute, 2-second drive deep into Kamehameha territory, but the strong gusts near the mauka tunnel sent Lason Napuunoa’s 28-yard field goal try wide right.
That didn’t cost Saint Louis the game. Leaning heavily into ball-control mode, the Crusaders, arguably, had their best offensive game plan and execution of the season — until that fateful fumble in the final minutes. After racking up 31 points in one half against a stellar Kamehameha defense, narrowing the second half down to a few possessions has its risks, but the percentages were with the Crusaders. They trusted their running game, including that double-tight end ace package, more than ever.
Top-ranked Kamehameha just happens to be a smidge better in a slow-tempo game.
“We just want to play. All the boys on those buses really just bought into that stick-together mentality,” Bartley said.
Ma‘afala gave his team a day off on Saturday. After all the preparation, hours of reps, and the emotional expenditure, some time to decompress after clutching up. Again.
“We were saying at the end there, ‘We’re built for this.’ This is what those long, grueling practices, all of these months of us just emphasizing the little things, pushing through the adversity when you don’t want to be there, continuing to give everything that you’ve got. Putting those emotions aside,” Ma‘afala said.
“Basically, our job as coaches is teaching them through football how to be men. Set our emotions aside and do what we need to do in order to get the job done. I’m so proud of them because it’s one thing to preach it, but it’s another for the kids to actually buy in and believe it. It’s been the same message five, going on six years. It’s amazing what happens when you have a team of people that come together for each other.”
It would be difficult to find any coach in the ILH willing to guarantee, to predict this year’s ILH Open Division football champion. Kamehameha clearly has the most balance in all three phases, but Saint Louis’ young defense showed vast improvement. Punahou’s front seven has played stronger and more consistently. The title is up for grabs, and one week of rest is priceless.
“Hat’s off to Saint Louis. That’s a great football team we just played,” Ma‘afala said. “An amazing (game) plan. For coach (Ron) Lee, a Division I (college) offensive coordinator. For (Kamehameha defensive coordinator) Matt (Wright) and his staff to have to face that three, four times this year, that’s an amazing adjustment they came out with. Everybody stayed calm. Players believed in the coaches. The coaches believed in the players. We had one bounce our way and thank God we’re able to finish out the first round on top.”
Wright’s defensive wizardry had the Warriors stifling Saint Louis and Bianco in their first matchup. This time, Bianco simply ran and ran past blitzing defenders and stand-still defenders alike. Bianco passed for 218 yards without a pick, and racked up 97 rushing yards, scoring twice, including a 45-yard jaunt to the pylon. However, in Saint Louis’ final series in the final 2:01, the Warriors brought heat from unpredictable angles and locations, and the Crusaders couldn’t get past midfield.
A fourth-and-short bomb in the final 15 seconds is another learning experience for Bianco, who started the fifth game of his career. The Crusaders could have opted for the shorter pass, then aim for a completion downfield between the hashmarks, burn that final time out and possibly get Napuunoa a final crack. Maybe a field goal try inside 40 yards and push the contest into overtime. Bianco’s pass sailed five or so yards too deep for William Reed and his defender.
There is no mercy for first-year starters and veterans alike. There is only the fateful, merciless wind.
At Aloha Stadium
Saint Louis (2-3, 2-2 ILH) 14 17 0 0 — 31
Kamehameha (3-1, 3-1 ILH) 7 13 0 14 — 34
KS—Sheyden Iokia 16 pass from Kealii Ah Yat (Winston Freitas kick)
STL—AJ Bianco 45 run (Lason Napuunoa kick)
STL—Blaze Holani 41 interception return (Napuunoa kick)
KS—Levi Ma‘afala 27 pass from Ah Yat (Freitas kick)
STL—Mason Muaau 42 pass from Bianco (Napuunoa kick)
KS—Noah Bartley 11 run (kick failed)
STL—Bianco 6 run (Napuunoa kick)
STL—Napuunoa FG 34
KS—Blaze Kamoku 20 pass from Ah Yat (Ma‘afala pass from Ah Yat)
KS—Bartley 23 run (kick blocked)
RUSHING—KS: Noah Bartley 29-218, Kealii Ah Yat 8-32, Kamoku 1-0, Ma‘afala 3-11. STL: Keola Apduhan 4-37, Trech Kekahuna 4-38, AJ Bianco 15-97, Jaysen Peters-de Laura 3-5.
PASSING—KS: Ah Yat 14-21-1-161. STL: Bianco 15-23-0-218.
RECEIVING—KS: Bartley 2-21, Blaze Kamoku 2-33, Levi Ma‘afala 2-36, Sheydon Iokia 3-29, Raiden Morris 2-18, Peyton Kahahawai-Welch 2-24, Kahanu Kalahiki 1-6. STL: Kekahuna 6-39, Jaysen Peters-de Laura 2-16, Devon Tauaefa 2-26, Mason Muaau 3-103, Chyler DeSilva 1-21, TItan Lacaden, Random Cordeiro 1-13.