At 12-0 with a rousing 45-6 win over Kahuku in the state final on Friday, this year’s edition of the nationally ranked, four-peat state champion Saint Louis Crusaders may be among the best ever on campus.
They have won 38 games in a row since losing to Punahou on Sept. 23, 2016. Across the board, there have been Saint Louis teams with more talent in one area or another, but more balanced? Maybe not.
“Maybe. We can score offensively and keep them from scoring. That’s pretty good,” coach Cal Lee said. “The seniors overall, I’m very happy for them. They’ll always remember their senior year. They might not remember freshman year.”
During the years when Lee and his staff were away from Kalaepokaku, there was success under Delbert Tengan and Darnell Arceneaux. Eventually, however, questions arose about the survival of Saint Louis School. Prep football took a different shape on the field. When Lee returned to the fold in 2015 for a second stint as head coach of the Crusaders, the throne atop Hawaii high school football had changed hands three times in three previous seasons: Punahou in 2013; Mililani in ’14; Kahuku, with its extreme smashmouth offense, in ’15. That Kahuku squad throttled Saint Louis in the ’15 state final, 30-14.
Lee and his staff had gotten by through his return campaign without much depth across the roster, particularly on the defensive line.
In ’16, a promising young defensive lineman named Faatui Tuitele joined the varsity. The sophomore was part of a major influx of defensive talent, and with a fortified wall in the trenches, Saint Louis returned to the throne with a 30-14 win over Kahuku for the state title.
That enabled quarterback extraordinaire Tua Tagovailoa to graduate with a state crown. With Tuitele in the trenches, the Crusaders beefed up at all positions, invigorated by an experienced staff. Chevan Cordeiro took the reins of the four-wide offense and learned from the master, offensive coordinator Ron Lee, as Saint Louis won the title in ’17.
In ’18, a young gun named Jayden de Laura became the QB after Cordeiro matriculated to Hawaii. Tuitele lifted a young squad to another HHSAA title, then departed to Washington, while another defensive lineman, Gino Quinones, signed on with USC.
A strange, but not so uncommon thing happened. An extraordinary talent like Tuitele graduates, and the returnees take everything to a higher level. That’s what happened this fall with the Crusaders, who rose to a No. 6 national ranking, and remained locked at No. 1 in Hawaii from opening to closing bell.
The next chapter
When Coach Lee mentioned after Friday’s title win that this was “a long season,” he might have meant that this is going to be a longer season. Saint Louis will be on its way to Las Vegas for a matchup possibly with St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), the nation’s No. 4 team. The GEICO State Champions Bowl Series game will be on Dec. 21 or 22.
The field general, de Laura, went 22-0 as a starter over a two-year span. His evolution as a quarterback was a matter of constant work. The tradition of mastery by Saint Louis QBs is intact.
“He came here, and now he has offers from schools like Ohio State,” Ron Lee said. “You get in the right system, it helps. Look at Chev (Cordeiro). He sat two years behind Tua (Tagovailoa), goes to Hawaii and gets a chance to start. Tua goes to the No. 1 team in the country (Alabama) and he’s competing.”
Much of the state is running the four-wide offense at all levels, but Saint Louis has refined it to a unique level without using RPO wrinkles.
“There’s a misconception that quarterbacks should get too much credit and too much blame. We spend a lot of time with receivers. They play a big role in the success of the quarterback,” Ron Lee said. “It’s the receivers being where they’re supposed to be. If we didn’t have Roman (Wilson), (Matthew) Sykes and Koali (Nishigaya), maybe Jayden wouldn’t do as well. The system’s important.”
After beating Kahuku, it was clearer than ever that the gap between Open Division and Division I is larger than ever. Even within the Open, no foe could consistently move the ball against Saint Louis’ cornerstone defensive line, led by Stanley McKenzie.
With two years of interleague play in this pilot program, coaches across the OIA and ILH have praised it openly. Open, D-I, D-II — it is popular among players, coaches, fans. Sometimes, coaches brought up the topic without being asked, concerned about the possibility that the two-year lab experiment could be wrapped up and sent away.
Punahou has a case to debate regarding the format, as a second-place team out of the ILH that wasn’t given a chance to play in the state tourney, twice. But the Buffanblu aren’t complaining. This format gives Kamehameha, Punahou and Saint Louis a wide variety of teams to play during the regular season, thanks to the OIA.
“I haven’t heard anything yet. I think we are excited about the possibility of continuing it,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said. “It gave us a lot of opportunities to play different schools, to experience Friday night lights at different venues like Waianae, Kapolei, Campbell. That was fun. The competition was always good.”
Ane is aware of the ongoing debate within leagues. Though Punahou is ranked No. 2 and did not qualify for the state tourney, the pluses well outweigh the minuses in his view.
“The leagues will get together and talk about the positives and negatives. What can they tweak? What don’t they have to tweak. We don’t know about the profit margin, how much was actually accomplished. There’s a lot of questions, but I think by most standards, people would say it was very successful,” Ane said.
Maintaining the three-division format is another positive, he added. Moanalua won OIA D-I, lost in the state tourney, and has gone 18-3 overall in the past two seasons. Na Menehune edged ‘Iolani during the regular season on a last-second field goal, then lost to the Raiders in the state tournament.
“The level of play. All coaches are playing some awesome, consistent football,” Moanalua coach Savaii Eselu said. “Being that this is the final attack for the pilot (program), the format is perfect. It’s great. It’s a good deal. I hope it continues on.”
Legacy in action
State titles are no guarantee of future success.
The addition of a third division opened opportunities for Hilo and Lahainaluna. Hilo has been in the past three D-I state finals, winning in ’17 and again last Friday in a 20-17 thriller with ‘Iolani.
Lahainaluna won its fourth state title in a row, overcoming Kapaa 21-10. Derek Perez and Josh Tihada became the first four-time football state champions in school history.
“I can feel the blessings from the community, the team and the coaches. We worked super hard for this,” said Perez, who had two tackles.
Tihada scored all three touchdowns and added to his mark of most career TDs — 19 — in state-tourney play. His 310 rushing yards on 36 carries set a state-tournament record.
He is as humble as they come, but when it comes to team success, he wants the next crop of Lunas to continue the legacy.
“The JV guys, they’ve been practicing with us, they push us just as hard. I want them to have this feeling so when, if they come back, to know how hard they have to work,” Tihada said. “From right now, after this (state tournament), you’ve got to be out there committed to work hard. Keep your mind dedicated to this.”