Sunday, October 9, 2022
By: Wes Nakama
For the past 36 years, the road to the Interscholastic League of Honolulu football championship usually ran through Saint Louis, and this year is no exception.
But No. 2-ranked Punahou crossed a major milestone on that journey Saturday afternoon by picking apart the visiting No. 5 Crusaders, 42-21, at Alexander Field to secure the top spot in the upcoming league playoffs. The Buff ‘n Blue improved to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the ILH, and by sweeping both games against Saint Louis in the regular season, earned a first-round bye in the playoffs and will then be one victory away from clinching their first state tournament berth since 2014.
Punahou faces Kamehameha (0-5-1, 0-3) next Saturday in the regular season finale, but regardless of that outcome, the Warriors and Crusaders (3-4, 2-2) will square off in the ILH playoff first round later this month, with the winner to play the Buff ‘n Blue one week later.
“It’s a very big opportunity for us,” said Punahou junior linebacker Blayne Shiraki, who had a team-high seven tackles Saturday and made a key end zone interception to stop a Saint Louis drive. “I mean, I remember growing up watching these games, and tears coming down my face losing to Saint Louis. So it’s been a dream of mine to come out here and try to make a difference at Punahou and create a legacy that I know we can have. My brother played here for three years, lost to Saint Louis, beat them once. So for me, I have to finish what my brother started.”
The Buff ‘n Blue took care of business Saturday by sustaining and finishing scoring drives, and shutting down the Crusaders’ running game (just 29 yards on 15 carries) — things Saint Louis could not match in return. Punahou put up a staggering 572 yards of total offense, with 421 yards through the air and 151 on the ground. Senior quarterback John-Keawe Sagapolutele completed 24 of 33 passes for 414 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, and junior running back Ala’i Williams added 95 yards and two TDs rushing on 17 carries.
Another category with glaring numbers was time of possession, where the Buff ‘n Blue controlled the ball for 29.5 minutes, compared to just 18.5 for the Saints.
“It’s our main objective, we don’t have a big roster, so as an offense, we try our best to keep our defense off the field so they can get their breaks and be ready to come back on the field,” said Sagapolutele, a four-year starter who has verbally committed to the University of Hawai’i. “I’m just so proud of my O-line for keeping me protected, and our skills (guys) for getting open and making plays.”
Punahou actually wasted little time in scoring after the opening kickoff, striking paydirt on the third play from scrimmage when Sagapolutele threw a slant pass over the middle to receiver Astin Hange, who was crossing to the right, got hit, bounced to the left and then streaked down the sideline to the end zone for a 64-yard score. Jordan Kapisi’s extra point made it 7-0.
The Crusaders responded quickly, marching 61 yards on eight plays capped by Kekahi Graham’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Chyler DeSilva, and Makena Kauai’s PAT tied it at 7-7 with 7:41 remaining in the first quarter.
Early in that drive, Saint Louis senior defensive end Julian Savaiinaea injured his left ankle and did not return after being helped off the field. Savaiianea, who verbally committed to Arizona last summer, was on crutches at halftime with his ankle wrapped in ice.
The Buff ‘n Blue came right back with a five-play, 70-yard scoring drive culminating in Iosepa Lyman’s 10-yard run, followed by Kapisi’s point-after to push Punahou ahead, 14-7. Saint Louis drove to the Buff ‘n Blue 4-yard line on the ensuing series, but Shiraki snagged a Graham overthrow to give the ball back to Punahou, which then extended the lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter after a 14-play, 90-yard drive punctuated by Sagapolutele’s 13-yard touchdown toss to Noah Macapulay.
The Buff ‘n Blue then threatened again, advancing to the Crusaders’ 12, but defensive lineman Joshua Sagapolutele recovered a fumble at the 11 and Saint Louis closed it to 21-14 two plays later when Graham threw down the right sideline to receiver Yosei Takahashi, who scampered to the end zone on a 74-yard scoring play.
“With Saint Louis, they are common opponents who we’ve seen over the years, so we have an idea of what they want to do,” Punahou coach Nate Kia said. “But at the same time, they’re so good at what they do, you can’t take for granted even one single play. You can’t take a play off.”
The Buff ‘n Blue responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive capped by Williams’ multi-effort 3-yard plunge, followed by Kapisi’s extra point to push the lead to 28-14, which is how it stood at halftime.
The Crusaders took the opening touchback of the second half and advanced to the Punahou 25, but lost the ball on downs at the 19 after failing to convert on fourth-and-10.
The Buff ‘n Blue then went 81 yards in 12 plays, scoring on Sagapolutele’s 15-yard TD pass to Hange and making it 35-14 with 3:34 remaining in the third quarter, which proved more than enough margin as the teams traded touchdowns in the fourth.
Saint Louis, which had run the ball effectively in last week’s victory at Kamehameha, could not establish a ground game this time around as Punahou routinely plugged the gaps and successfully managed outside contain.
“Every week for us, taking out the run game and making sure that we defend against that is Priority 1,” Kia said. “No matter who they play, if we can make them one-dimensional, that’s always a priority because being able to run the ball really can extend drives and keep the defense on the field. We think about that, because we work against our own offense (in practice).”
Photos by: Grant Shishido
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