• Paul Honda @ The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Saint Louis, Kahuku clash in state football semifinal


BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Saint Louis linebacker Kila Kamakawiwo‘ole, right, wrapped up Kahuku running back Toalei Lefau during the regular-season meeting between the Crusaders and Red Raiders on Sept. 7 at Aloha Stadium.

Saint Louis-Kahuku, chapter 2, in the year 2018.

The first meeting on Sept. 7 was a 30-14 win for Saint Louis, ranked No. 1 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. The two-time defending state champion Crusaders are also nationally ranked.

The Hawaii football powerhouses battle tonight in the semifinal round of the First Hawaiian Bank/HHSAA Open Division State Championship at Aloha Stadium. Saint Louis has won the last two matchups and has not lost to Kahuku since the 2015 D-I state final.

Saint Louis (9-0) has not played a game in three weeks, since winning the Interscholastic League of Honolulu crown for a fourth year in a row. Coach Cal Lee’s team has benefited from the rest, the healing time and the chance to get plenty of practice reps for veteran and younger players.

But it’s still a long three weeks.

“One week of preparation is enough. Two weeks, you start to think too much. Three weeks, you get kind of bored doing the same thing over and over,” said Lee, who has guided the squad from Kalaepohaku to back-to-back state crowns.

Lee played linebacker in high school (Kalani) and was all-conference at Willamette College. He enjoys the work of his current linebacker corps, which handles the siphoning duties for one of the nation’s best defensive units.

“Lawai Brown, Nick Herbig, Kila Kamakawiwo‘ole, Jordan Botelho, they’re all veterans. All you got to do is keep practicing the things you need to do. Make sure they’re in the right position to make plays, then they can secure and make the tackle. Get there,” Lee said.

Kahuku coach Sterling Carvalho tips his cap to the Lou’s front seven.

“Twelve (Botelho), 19 (Herbig) and 1 (Kamakawiwo‘ole), those are the ones who stand out on all videos. We’re running and Kamakawiwo‘ole is filling that hole so fast. Herbig off the edge and playing coverage. Botelho holds down that side really well. (Faatui) Tuitele takes that whole middle section up,” Carvalho said. “We have to be precise in how we run. The lanes will be small, alleys tight, windows smaller than we thought. Their defense is great. You see Kahuku defense like that, but their defense is clicking on all cylinders.”

The faux pas of the Crusaders’ dominant win over Punahou three weeks ago in the ILH title game was a slightly over-the-top celebration after a fumble recovery TD return and another yellow flag shortly after on Botelho. He was extremely apologetic after the game, disqualified for the two unsportsmanlike conduct violations.

“He’s a kid and they learn from it,” Lee said. “Hopefully, everybody learns you don’t do things to hurt the team. The celebrations they see on TV, I don’t like it.”

A matchup with Kahuku is intriguing in that sense. A junior QB for either side — Robbie Sauvao of Kahuku, Jayden de Laura for Saint Louis — being pestered constantly by strong, big, athletic linebackers.

Kahuku’s 7-4 mark is a bit misleading considering the progress of its youth brigade since key injuries, including a midseason one to middle linebacker Miki Ah You. Kahuku has filled in admirably with young sophomores Ilaisa Fotu and Alan Talanoa.

“Hopefully, they will play their best. They just can’t play intimidated,” Carvalho said.

It’s not just the linebacker corps that faces a tough challenge, particularly from the talented, experienced Saint Louis offensive line. The hope that defensive backs Alex Fonoimoana-Vaomu and Kaonohi Kaniho would return from injuries has dissipated. Both have been ruled out for this weekend’s game.

“Kaonohi had an outside shot. He’s up and jogging around, but he’s not getting full range of motion,” Carvalho said of the standout cornerback. “Mana (Fonoimoana-Vaomu) got hurt against Campbell the first time, then he got reinjured the second time against them. We were holding out hope.”

Whether the Red Raiders defense can play its best game of the season with basic schemes or more exotic blitz packages, de Laura isn’t the same quarterback he was early on. The southpaw has improved his willingness to stand in the pocket, and he is also more apt to run out of bounds than toss up 50-50 balls.

“We need to rattle de Laura,” Carvalho said. “This past couple of weeks, (defensive coordinator) Sola Soliai has been tweaking some fronts. Hopefully we can cause some confusion in getting to him, and in coverage.”

Soliai’s immense knowledge and experience can be a game-changer. So can the lack of a field to practice on.

“Our field is still bad. We haven’t practiced on it for a couple of weeks,” Carvalho added. “(Tuesday), we were at Farrington. (Wednesday), we’ll be at Castle.”

Dominant defenses don’t fear a challenge, but the awareness factor is built in for both sides. Kahuku’s group of running backs — Zealand Matagi (5-9, 195), versatile Wes Alo-Maiava (6-0, 180) and burly Toalei Lefau (5-11, 235) — sets off alarm bells for the Crusaders.

“I let them know, and they’ve seen tape of Lefau and how big he is and how hard he runs,” Lee said. “We’ve got to tackle properly, and gang tackle.”

Though the run game has been featured heavily by offensive coordinator Ron Lee, Saint Louis’ stable of receivers has been top flight again. Roman Wilson (30 receptions, 545 yards, seven TDs) has been a blur often on any kind of route imaginable. The cast of pass catchers — which includes Chance Beyer (41, 479, five), Makoa Close (23, 461, three) and Koali Nishigaya (35, 399, four) — is reliable and unselfish, often making key blocks for a Saint Louis run game that has tilted the run-pass play-call ratio in its favor this season.

Dayton Sam (460 rushing yards, six TDs) and Robbie Paikai (366, seven) average a combined 6.9 yards per carry.

Kahuku hasn’t come close to peaking yet with tall tight end Ethan Erickson, also known as “Alpine” because he’s originally from Alpine, Utah. Duke Heffernan is a reliable deep- and short-route target and Mason Paulo can be a game-breaker down the field.

NO. 1 SAINT LOUIS CRUSADERS (9-0) VS. NO. 4 KAHUKU RED RAIDERS (7-4)

Today, 7:30 p.m. Aloha Stadium

TV: Spectrum XCast (Ch. 1017)

Radio: 1500-AM

All-time series record: Saint Louis leads 15-8

First meeting: Kahuku 12, Saint Louis 6, Sept. 12, 1959

Last meeting: Saint Louis 30, Kahuku 14, Sept. 7, 2018

2018 rematch: Roman Wilson caught touchdown passes of 80 and 13 yards and finished with 136 yards receiving to lead the Crusaders to a 30-14 win on Sept. 7. Saint Louis held Kahuku to 8 total yards in the first half and had eight sacks, including three by Nick Herbig and two from Jordan Botelho.

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