The final day of September is already here, but there some new beginnings ahead.
That goes for teams on a momentum wave, like Kamehameha, now the No. 1 team in the Star-Advertiser Football Top 10. It also goes for Saint Louis, which lost to Kamehameha last Friday, 23-21, and shares that No. 1 spot atop the rankings.
The good news for Saint Louis (1-2, 1-1 ILH) is that the gauntlet of ILH football gives a relatively young, inexperienced roster a chance to evolve. Iron always sharpens iron at the top of the ILH. The mistakes that happened in the loss to Kamehameha are correctible. That’s the difference between a close loss and a close win.
“There’s parity. Punahou, Kamehameha, Saint Louis have a few guys here and there, not like 2017, 2018, 2019 when we had those players like Nick Herbig and Jordan Botelho, and we were ahead of those other teams,” Saint Louis coach Ron Lee said. “We’re all young with good players who need to work hard, and we’ve got to coach them up. Kamehameha is doing a great job of coaching. Punahou, too. You can’t have a bad game.”
In the musical-chairs scenario, it may be possible that Kamehameha is the toughest matchup for Saint Louis, Saint Louis is kryptonite to Punahou, and Punahou has just enough protection to make plays against a tough Kamehameha defense.
“The Kamehameha game, we knew we had to stop the running game and we didn’t,” Lee said of Kamehameha running back Noah Bartley and his offensive line. “That third quarter, they went 90 yards, ate up the whole quarter. We went three and out and they ate up the clock. They did a nice job with their game plan. They came to play, were well prepared and did the job. We got outreached, outplayed right across the board. We’ve got to get a heck of a lot better.”
Quarterback AJ Bianco passed for 343 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions on 30-for-44 attempts against Kamehameha. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior with a bazooka arm made just his third start at the position last weekend. The void left behind by the pandemic and cancellation of the 2020 season has affected every sport, leaving coaches to adjust expectations. A year’s worth of zero games and practices on campus can add up to untimely turnovers. Fewer games, less experience and more room for error. The math is undeniable.
“You’ve got to remember, AJ didn’t play freshman year. Sophomore year, he got hurt and last year, we didn’t play football. The Kamehameha game was his third (start) and he did well,” Lee said. “He did some good things, missed some things in the last couple of drives. That happens. I think he is getting better. He’s corrected a couple of things, got a lot of work to do the next couple of weeks.”
With a bye this week, the Crusaders had a couple of days off before resuming practice on Wednesday. Bianco is in the spotlight at what is essentially Quarterback High School, but the learning curve applies to every position, every player, Lee said.
“The other thing is, it’s not just him. Sometimes the receivers aren’t where they’re supposed to be. All of our receivers and our backs are first-year starters. All of them, that was their third game,” Lee said.
The ILH, with all three Open Division teams at 1-1, is in the same pace that fans of Kauai Interscholastic Federation football experience. The slight difference is that The KIF has three round-robins and six games with only a tiebreaker playoff if necessary. This fall, the ILH has two round-robins with a playoff bracket to follow. All three teams will be in the playoffs. That gives coaches and players a chance to drill down and truly crystallize later in the season.
“The players, the coaches, everybody, we can get beat if we’re not prepared. I’m glad it happened in a way,” Lee said. “We can’t take anything for granted. So it was a good lesson. The beauty of this thing is I’m excited. I want to see how our players pick themselves up. We don’t get that opportunity too often.”
The loss on Friday was the first for Saint Louis in Hawaii since a mid-season loss to Punahou in 2016.
“We’ll see what’s inside our guys. Nobody wants to lose, but you’re not going to win all the time. It’s a great time for us to take a gut check, coaches as well as players, see what we’re made of,” Lee said.
Saint Louis, with its four Open Division state titles in a row, still has believers among the voting panel of coaches and media. That’s what a 36-game win streak in the islands, even after derailment, can do. Though Kamehameha gathered seven of the 12 first-place votes, Saint Louis still collected two, and also had more second-place votes.
The next stretch of games will be fascinating. Kamehameha and Punahou square off on Friday night at Aloha Stadium. Then Punahou and Saint Louis have their rematch next week. During that weekend, Kamehameha and Kahuku will meet at Skippa Diaz Stadium.
Saint Louis has no crossover exhibition games scheduled at this point.
“No, nothing so far. Just focusing on Punahou and Kamehameha,” Lee said. “This is going to be a good game for them.”