Saint Louis’ title victory over Kahuku: crazy good
The appetizer was so very good that it seemed quite possible that the main course would turn out to be bland.
But instead, the third game of Saturday’s tripleheader at Aloha Stadium was a crazy-good show-stopper for football connoisseurs and an incredible capper for Hawaii’s football-hungry fans, who got an extra-sweet treat in the first game of the day — Lahainaluna’s 75-69 seven-overtime win over Konawaena in the D-II championship game.
With a kickoff at 9:58 p.m. Saturday, and the final play happening on Sunday morning after 1 a.m., there probably weren’t many fans who went home sorely disappointed after the back-and-forth showdown finally landed in favor of No. 1 Saint Louis, which scored the winning touchdown with 37 ticks left on the clock in a 31-28 victory over No. 2 Kahuku.
When the Crusaders (10-0) took a 24-7 lead over the Red Raiders (11-2) on Isaiah Tufaga‘s 40-yard interception return with 5:30 to go in the third quarter, those who would rather be home under the covers may have been letting the idea of leaving Aloha Stadium enter their minds. That would have been a big blunder.
Like their tomahawk-chopping, white-towel waving, red-clad fans, Kahuku just doesn’t give up. Ever.
So, it was time to see just how deep they could dig inside and come up with a response.
First, quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava connected with Wes Alo-Maiva for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 24-14. Then, with 10:09 left, after a key defensive stop, Kahuku cut the lead to 24-21 as fullback Toalei Lefau broke open in the end zone to catch an 8-yard Maiava pass.
On Saint Louis’ next possession, Kahuku’s defense delivered a stunning blow, when Saint Louis quarterback Chevan Cordeiro fumbled on a hit by Draeton Thompson and the ball popped up into the waiting arms of teammate Feso Malufau.
That amazing turn of events with 6:49 to go appeared to tip the scales in Kahuku’s favor just a bit, and just 24 seconds later, Maiava unloaded a 59-yard TD strike to Kaonohi Kaniho down the right sideline for a 28-24 edge. The Crusaders’ Kai Kaneshiro appeared to have Kaniho covered, but the pass just got over his hands and into Kaniho’s.
The Crusaders marched and looked primed to score right away, but the Red Raiders’ Aaron Fonoimoana-Vaomu tipped a Cordeiro pass and the ball popped up (sound familiar?) into the waiting hands of teammate Nalu Emerson in the end zone with 2:35 left.
But that apparent knockout was a long way from the fans watching Saint Louis hit the canvas for the 10 count.
Kahuku picked up a first down on a daring Maiava-to-Kaniho pass — with the wily Tufaga in the area. Another daring play, a pitch to running back Enoch Nawahine, worked against the Red Raiders. He gained 4 yards, but went out of bounds, stopping the clock. When the Red Raiders failed to get another first down, they punted with 54 seconds to go and seemingly still in pretty good shape.
With 37 seconds left, Cordeiro saw a one-on-one matchup on the right side, threw it long and receiver Jonah Panoke went up to wrest the ball away from Kahuku’s Alex Fonoimoana-Vaomu, who then fell while Panoke went the rest of the way into the end zone to complete the 53-yard touchdown for what held up as the winning score.
Despite the lack of time, the Red Raiders still drove all the way to the Crusaders’ 30 with 2 seconds left. Maiava tried a long pass that bounced off the turf incomplete to end it.
“Chev just told me I’ve got to make a big play and we didn’t have a lot of time and I knew that this might be our only chance,” Panoke said. “So I knew I had to go out there and do my best. I knew it was coming to me. He kind of gave me that look. Receivers on both sides were doing streaks and he just took that shot. I knew I had to make a big play. This was my only chance, so I knew I had to just do it. It was difficult, but you just have to outwork everybody and you just have to have faith in everything you do. It feels amazing to end the season with another victory and another ring. Chev is a great quarterback. I’ve played with him since the second grade in Mighty Mites Pop Warner.”
Here is Cordeiro’s take on that game-winning TD: “The play was both X and Z receivers doing deep routes. I chose to go with Jonah because he was 1-on-1. I just threw it up and he made a great catch. It’s amazing. We worked hard this whole offseason and throughout the season for this moment. To come back and win against Kahuku, a great team — there’s nothing else we can ask for.
“To be honest, I was a little worried with such little time, but I had all my teammates and they all believed in me and I believed in them and we finished the job. Kahuku is amazing. Their D is good. Their offense is good. They brought their A game and it was a really good game. I worried a little when they went ahead, too, but it wasn’t the first time we’ve down. We just had to get back up and score.”
Coach Cal Lee and many on his staff headed for the North end zone to the bus not long after the victory that sewed up back-to-back championship seasons and gave the Crusaders two out of the last three with Kahuku as the opponent in the finale. Saint Louis won its fifth top-tier state championship to go along with the 14 Prep Bowls (the predecessor to the state tourney) its won. Lee has been a part of 17 of those titles as the head coach.
Lee responsed three times to a postgame text message early and then later Sunday morning.
“What a game,” was Lee’s answer, when asked for a one-sentence comment. Later, he wrote, “Reminds me of 1983. We came from behind to win.”
In that game 34 years ago, the Crusaders beat Nanakuli 15-12 for their first Prep Bowl crown.
Lee gave high praise to Cordeiro in his third text: “He never gave up and battled the adversity and made the biggest play when we needed it.”
Many on the Kahuku side took it hard, but not all. Coach Makoa Freitas‘ voice cracked a bit when he talked about the love he has for his team and the effort they put in.
“It was a close game, one of those things where someone has to win and someone has to lose,” Freitas said.
When asked about the loss on that Panoke 1-on-1 grab, he said, “That’s OK. We’ll live with that.
“I thought, as usual, our team came and played their hearts out. We won the OIA and upheld the legacy of that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come away from this one with a win, but we’ll be back. I’m not going to second guess. The team played hard and I’m proud of them.”
Maiava was as cool as a cucumber after the loss.
“I’m fine,” Maiava said. “It’s football. Gotta be a winner and gotta be a loser. I’m glad we didn’t lose by giving up and putting our heads down. We lost with our heads high and kept fighting. That’s how I like to lose. No one likes to lose, especially like that. We still want to win. But sometimes, you gotta be a loser. My teammates, they’re going to be all right. Football is just a game. Our fans are loving us still. I want to say thank you to them and my family for always supporting us.
Maiava gave props to Cordeiro, too.
“Chevan, he’s a great QB. I go up against my defense every day and the way he was scrambling and making plays on his feet, it shows a lot of heart in him.”
Aaron Fonoimoana-Vaomu, the linebacker who tipped the ball to Emerson on the play that nearly secured a win for Kahuku, talked about how the tables turned.
“From that moment, we thought we had them and that was the mistake we made because we weren’t humble,” he said. “I feel like if we were more humble, we would have made it. They played until the whistle was blown, so hat’s off to them. They’re a great team. I appreciate them. What a game. Win or lose, we’ve still got our fans. I just love them so much. That’s the spirit of Kahuku. It’s all one community.”