The past is the past for Red Raiders, Crusaders
CB Kekaula Kaniho and the Kahuku Red Raiders will take on SB Ronson Young and the Saint Louis Crusaders Saturday night for the inaugural Open Division championship. ScoringLive photo illustration
For the second straight season and the seventh time in the state tournament era, Kahuku and Saint Louis are the last teams standing.
The Red Raiders and Crusaders — two of the state's premier programs over the years — will culminate the prep football season when they face off in the title game of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Open Division State Championships.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Hawaiian Tel FCU Field at Aloha Stadium.
Defending champion Kahuku (11-1), which is seeking its 25th consecutive win over an in-state opponent, has held firm atop the ScoringLive/Hawaiian Electric D1 Power Rankings all season.
The Red Raiders are 24-1 in two seasons under coach Vavae Tata, which includes a 39-14 win over Saint Louis in last year's state final — not that it matters much to Tata at this point.
"I made it clear in our first team meeting that 2015 was a different team, so 2016 we had to find out who we are and what our was identity moving forward because unfortunately, the momentum that we built in 2015 doesn't carry on to 2016, so first and foremost we needed to identify who we were going to be and what we were going to hang out hat on," Tata said.
Much like it did last year, Kahuku has hung its hat on defense this season.
The Red Raiders have allowed just 78 points defensively all year — 35 of those coming in a non-league loss at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas), the top-ranked team in the nation. Opponents are averaging less than seven points and a mere 133 yards per game.
"They've shutout a lot of people, they play good defense and they score a lot of points on defense, so it's going to be a great challenge for us," Saint Louis coach Cal Lee said.
Kahuku's defense has been stout on every level — allowing just over 40 rush yards per game — but especially tough in the secondary, where it has four senior starters in cornerbacks Kekaula Kaniho, Stokes Nihipali-Botelho and safeties Kesi Ah-Hoy and Codie Sauvao.
The unit will be put to the test by a Saint Louis offense that scores more than 38 points and gains just over 400 yards per contest, led by senior quarterback and Alabama-commit Tua Tagovailoa.
Tagovailoa has thrown for 2,426 yards with 26 touchdowns against six interceptions on the season. He has also rushed for a team-high 591 yards and seven scores on the ground.
"Saint Louis, with Tua, has a high-powered offense, so hopefully we can contain Tua and slow them down," said Tata, whose team is ranked 19th in USA Today's Super 25 national rankings.
Kahuku is seeking its record ninth state championship and first back-to-back titles since 2011 and 2012. It is 8-2 all-time in finals in the state tournament era. Five of those victories have come against Saint Louis, whose last win over the Red Raiders in a state final came in the inaugural tournament in 1999.
It remains as the lone state championship under Lee, the state's winningest prep football coach. The Crusaders won 14 Oahu Prep Bowls, including a string of 13 straight from 1986 to 1998.
"The boys have worked hard all season long to get where we're at and it's a credit to their hard work that they've done all season long," Lee said. "To come to this final game and to play in it, I think it's a great deal for the boys."
Second-ranked Saint Louis (9-1), the No. 2 seed in the six-team tournament behind Kahuku, is 3-6 in state title games. It is seeking its fourth state championship and first since 2010.
For Tata — who played defensive end for Lee at Saint Louis in the early 90's — all of the history between the teams is just that and the season essentially comes down to one final game.
"This is the most important one because this is the one where they hand out the hardware," Tata said. "I always preach that it's the end game that really matters. All the other games is just the process of getting here. We're grateful for the opportunity, we're looking forward to the challenge and we're excited."