Now in his fifth season as head coach of national powerhouse Bishop Gorman (Nev.), Kenny Sanchez relishes the challenge of coming to Hawaii to play Saint Louis. There will be a time for leisure on this trip, but it will have to wait, and anyway, there’s plenty of pleasure in the task that brings his team here.
“The fun part is going out and playing in Aloha Stadium. What a historic place to play, being in Hawaii. Saturday is our free day. They can swim on the beach. The most fun is the game itself and playing a great team like Saint Louis,” Sanchez said.
Saint Louis coach Cal Lee has his own memories of visiting Bishop Gorman’s campus. Lee made the trek more than a decade ago as Hawaii’s linebackers coach.
“I used to recruit there. They have everything. The medical. The whirlpool. Outstanding. Anything you can think of, it’s as good as or better than some of the colleges,” he said. “Great facilities. They can run the 40-yard dash in the weight room.”
While most high school teams have one helmet, Bishop Gorman unveiled a glorious chrome dome for its season opener last weekend.
“It’s not like they only have one helmet. They’ve got about five different helmets,” said Lee, now in his 27th season as a head coach.
The Saint Louis-Bishop Gorman matchup at Aloha Stadium and the Mililani-Liberty (Nev.) game at John Kauinana Stadium are dubbed the Aloha Football Classic. The Gaels, unofficial national champions in 2014, ’15 and ’16, opened their season with a 40-7 win over Orem, Utah’s defending 4A state champion. They led 27-0 after one quarter.
“They run to the ball so good. Defensively, they do a good job,” Lee said. “I thought Orem was a good test for them, but Bishop Gorman just overpowered them.”
Saint Louis is 2-0 overall (2-0 ILH Open), ranked No. 1 in the Star-Advertiser Football Top 10, with a 28-game win streak on the line. The Gaels are underdogs against 20-time Hawaii state and Oahu Prep Bowl champion Saint Louis, at least according to the national rankings. USA Today’s Super 25 has Saint Louis ranked No. 12 and Bishop Gorman at 13. The MaxPreps Xcellent 25 lists the Crusaders at No. 10 and the Gaels at No. 15.
The teams met once previously, in 2012, when Sanchez was an assistant coach under brother Tony. The Gaels won 52-40 at Aloha Stadium over a Saint Louis team that went 5-5. Much has changed since the return of Cal Lee.
“We’re playing a team that’s ranked higher than us, so for us that’s exciting and that’s interesting to our fans. Our players get more fired up for practices,” said Sanchez, who began as an assistant in ’08. “I always try to figure out what excites them, and they get excited about rankings. Anything that gets your kids to play hard, why ignore it if it’s there? It’s so early for rankings, but the kids like that. We still want to focus on playing one game at a time.”
Lee sees no benefit to the hype of national rankings.
“I don’t think much about it. The real rankings come at the end of the season. That’s when it counts,” he said.
The Gaels have won 10 consecutive Nevada state titles, including four in a row under Kenny Sanchez. Their staff has viewed plenty of Saint Louis video.
“Their quarterback (Jaylen de Laura) and receivers are extremely good. We have a lot of respect for their quarterback. He’s extremely good on his feet and he’s got a heck of an arm. All four receivers are good. The O-line is big, strong and physical. We’ve got our work cut out for us defensively. We have to be able to run the ball with those physical linebackers they have and their D-line. Coach Lee has done a great job,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s defense is at the forefront. Dahlin Mesake — who recently decommitted from Brigham Young — and Ishe Smith Jr. are key as Bishop Gorman’s defensive ends. Connor Fryar and Tafao Amataga rotate at nose tackle. Inside linebacker Bryan Certain navigates the defensive unit.
“Ishe is a typical high-school sized kid, but he’s extremely quick and fast,” Sanchez said. “Connor and Tafao are both big, strong and physical.”
The Gaels switched to an odd front this season to maximize their team speed. It’s the kind of defense that could or should match up with Saint Louis’ explosive run-and-shoot offense on paper.
The counter is that offensive coordinator Ron Lee’s unit has been run-heavy in the red zone over the past two seasons. Saint Louis has scored 39 of its 68 offensive TDs on the ground since de Laura became the starter last year.
Bishop Gorman’s first TD of the season was scored by a speedy freshman, Zachariah Branch, on a 45-yard pass from Micah Bowens. WR Rome Odunze, a 6-3, 200-pound senior, is a Washington commit. The offense is versatile, with all kinds of formations, including RPO schemes and even occasional speed option by Bowens.
“The quarterback is outstanding,” Lee said. “He’s probably the best one we’re going to see right now.”
BISHOP GORMAN (NEVADA) GAELS (1-0) VS. SAINT LOUIS CRUSADERS (2-0)
Tonight, 7:30 p.m., Aloha Stadium
>> National rankings Bishop Gorman: No. 13 (USA Today), No. 15 (MaxPreps) Saint Louis: No. 12 (USA Today), No. 10 (MaxPreps)
>> Only meeting: Bishop Gorman 52, Saint Louis 40, Sept. 1, 2012
>> Game recap: Anu Solomon, who went on to play quarterback at Arizona, threw for three touchdowns and rushed for another as the Gaels built a 42-7 lead in the third quarter before the Crusaders rallied to make it close. Adam Noga rushed for 201 yards — the sixth-highest single-game total in Saint Louis history — and two TDs.