It was a not-so-good showing on the scoreboard for coach Rod York‘s Mililani Trojans on Saturday night in the Open Division final of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Football State Championships.
But they’ll be able to look back at the 38-17 loss to the top-ranked Saint Louis Crusaders and know they didn’t go down with a whimper. They were in striking distance, 14-3, at halftime.
In the third quarter, things got worse in a hurry as Saint Louis (11-0) went up 31-3 by turning a punt block and an interception into two touchdowns.
But, finding deep resolve, the second-ranked Trojans (10-3) staved off a blowout. They nearly got back into the the thick of it — if not for one play that, in the business, is called a 14-point swing.
“It’s not what we wanted,” said senior running back Kilifi Malepeai, a bull of an athlete. “But we did what we could. I’m proud of every single person on this team, from the players to the coaches to the families. These boys put in the work every day. We tried today, but we came up a little short. (The comeback) was pretty good, but it wasn’t enough. It is what it is. I’m proud of this team for not giving up.”
Malepeai rushed for 80 yards on nine carries against the state’s stoutest defense. His brother, Vavae Malepeai, is carrying the ball for USC.
Quarterback Dillon Gabriel‘s rushing stats tell the story about what kind of game it was. His positive rushing stats were 121 yards, but his negative (nine sacks) was 88. Saint Louis’ front seven got in there often.
“We can’t make mistakes against a team like Saint Louis,” York said afterward. “We needed to come in and match Saint Louis’ intensity and execution. Hat’s off to Saint Louis. They proved why they’re the best. But I’m so proud of our guys and the way they represented themselves and their community and their parents.”
About the comeback that fell well short, York said, “Yeah, our kids fight. Even when we win, the scoreboard doesn’t define who we are. These guys’ attitude and effort is what matters. We care more about how we played, and I’m so proud of them. It was a great run this season.”
The Trojans were OIA Open champions and got to the finale at states. They were going for a second top-tier championship to add to the one from 2014, when McKenzie Milton was the quarterback.
Milton was on the minds of the Mililani ohana. Gaile Nitta, the wife of Trojans athletic director Glenn Nitta, wore No. 10 (Milton’s jersey number) in dark marker on her face.
Milton, the UCF starter, hurt his knee badly Friday in a college win over South Florida and had emergency surgery. Mark Milton, McKenzie’s dad, texted the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Saturday morning with a message to all of Hawaii: “We appreciate the support. The surgery last night appears to have gone pretty well to stabilize the knee.”
Cy Kuboyama-Hayashi, a receiver and a holder on special teams for the Trojans, talked about the loss: “They (the Cruasaders) are a good team, but we could have done more to prepare ourselves. It’s not disappointing. You learn lessons. It’s a team sport. We’re all in it together. I love every single one of my teammates head to toe. We’ve been through a lot together since middle school. Always proud of my boys.”
Kuboyama-Hayashi was Milton’s backup quarterback in 2015 as a freshman. He also backed up Gabriel as a sophomore and junior.
“It was a good experience being a freshman and having to fill such big shoes,” he said.
Shane Kady, a Trojans junior defensive lineman, also spoke about getting this far and not coming out on top: “We definitely worked hard and gave it our all. I just think we didn’t come out that strong today. We played with heart and it didn’t come out in our favor at the end.”
Now, back to that 14-point swing. Mililani had just scored on an impressive eight-play, 84-yard, late third-quarter drive capped by Gabriel’s naked bootleg 1-yard TD run to make it 31-10.
But, after an acrobatic interception by Fatu Iosefa, the Trojans drove as far as the Saint Louis 15, but Crusaders linebacker Jordan Botelho ruined Mililani’s day. He took the ball that fell out of Gabriel’s hands and ran 74 yards the other way for a touchdown. Instead of making it 31-17, the Trojans went behind 38-10 — a killer.
“We’ll reflect on the season and improve what we do,” York said. “Gotta go to work. I’m so happy for our guys. It was a great run this season.”
York had some thoughts about just how good the Crusaders were this season.
“Straight up, they’re the best team we’ve played,” he said. “Saint Louis at this time of the year, they could beat (California teams) Mater Dei or St. John Bosco. They’ve got great athletes, no doubt, great coaching, no doubt, but it’s the mind-set of the kids that is what separates them. And they play. No, their mind-set is not better than ours. But they’ve got athletes. They’ve got dudes.”
York stopped short of saying this is the best Crusaders team.
“This team is not up there,” he said. “Last year’s team was better. Their defense is young and they’ve got a bunch of juniors. That’s scary, and they’ve got more guys coming in.”
But York brought it back home to the Mililani ohana: “It was a helluva run. A great run.”
On Facebook, one hour after the game ended, York posted: “Thank you to my Trojan Team. I had a first class seat and enjoyed one hell of a ride.”