By Wes Nakama
Another wild and exhilarating rivalry game that featured 935 yards of offense came down to one yard and one play Friday night, as Damien held off ‘Iolani, 42-37, to earn the ILH’s Division I state tournament berth at Radford’s John Velasco Stadium.
An apparent fourth-down catch by the Raiders’ Nela Taliauli was ruled incomplete near the goal line with one second remaining, preserving the Monarchs’ victory and improving their record to 8-3. ‘Iolani’s season ends at 6-3, with both on-field losses coming to Damien in the past three weeks. The Raiders’ string of six straight state tournament appearances also comes to an end.
Damien, meanwhile, punched its first state tournament ticket since 2017.
“It’s a really big, major step,” said Monarchs sophomore quarterback Alani Tuifua, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 232 yards and four touchdowns, and added 38 yards rushing on four carries. “Damien has barely had this opportunity to go to States the past few years, but me, my offense, my defense, the team, the coaching staff — we just did our thing over the summer and all the practices we had … we just came to this game prepared.”
‘Iolani had won this season’s first meeting, 63-56, but the Monarchs won the rematch, 69-35, three weeks ago. Damien wasted little time getting on the board Friday with running back Sylas Alaimalo breaking free for a 91-yard touchdown scamper down the right sideline and Samuel Kawakami’s extra point making it 7-0 just two and a half minutes after the opening kickoff.
The Raiders responded with a seven-play, 69-yard scoring drive capped by CJ Villanueva’s five-yard TD pass to Kekama Kane. Marcos King tacked on the PAT to tie it at 7-7 with 6:44 remaining in the first quarter.
The Monarchs scored just five plays later, on Tuifua’s 55-yard pass play to Ian Sera, followed by Kawakami’s extra point to put them up, 14-7. Taliauli later recovered a fumble at the Damien 6-yard line, and Kane ran it in from three yards out three plays later to help tie the score at 14-14 eight second into the second quarter.
After ‘Iolani’s Zion Junk recovered a fumble at the Monarchs’ 18 on the ensuing possession, the Raiders scored four plays later on Villanueva’s 12-yard keeper and King’s PAT put ‘Iolani ahead, 21-14. But the lead was short-lived, as Damien answered just three plays later when Tuifua connected with Dayton Savea on a 63-yard touchdown pass and Kawakami knotted it up at 21-21 with three minutes gone in the second.
The Monarchs then went up, 28-21, after Alaimalo’s 54-yard TD scamper just three minutes later, but the Raiders responded again, this time on Villanueva’s 16-yard scoring pass to Kane and King’s extra point to tie it at 28-28 with 3:02 left in the half. Damien then took a 35-28 lead just 20 seconds before the break with Tuifua connecting with Nalu Chinen-Zablan on a 17-yard touchdown pass.
Alaimalo racked up 195 yards rushing and two TDs on just 11 carries in the first half. He finished with 228 yards on 20 carries, as the yards and points were not as easy to come by in the second half, for both teams.
After ‘Iolani tied it at 35-35 after Villanueva’s 15-yard keeper barely two minutes into the third quarter, the score stayed that way until late in the fourth, when Tuifua faced fourth-and-3 on the Raiders 48 and threw a swing pass to Nalu Chinen-Zablan near the right sideline. ‘Iolani had several defenders in the area, but Chinen-Zablan somehow found a seam and darted through it, racing all the way to the end zone.
“We did have him contained,” Raiders coach Wendell Look said, “but we couldn’t make the tackle.”
Kawakami’s PAT gave the Monarchs a 42-35 lead with 4:25 remaining, but ‘Iolani was not done yet. Starting at their own 28, the Raiders marched 71 yards and gained first-and-goal from the 1 with under a minute left. A running play was stopped at the line of scrimmage, but on second down Kane caught a pass in the back of the end zone, but was ruled out of bounds.
A third-down pass sailed a bit long, but on fourth down — with eight seconds showing on the clock — Villanueva hit Taliauli on a quick inside pass to the right slot. Taliauli turned, took at least one step and lunged to stretch to ball toward the goal line and lost it as he fell to the ground. But the officials ruled it incomplete, which would negate the issue of whether the ball crossed the plane prior to it coming loose.
Damien thus took over on downs at the 1, and intentionally knelt for a safety to let the time expire.
“It was exciting, it was an exciting game,” said Monarchs coach Bones Tuitele. “I love these ‘Iolani-Damien battles.”
Villanueva, a sophomore, finished 32 of 56 for 369 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions. Kane, also a sophomore, caught 14 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. But despite closing the point differential significantly from the 69-35 defeat on Oct. 14, Look said Raiders take little consolation in that because they wanted much more.
“We asked them to find a purpose in what they were doing all season, and this kind of symbolizes what the season was like — close, but not enough,” Look said. “Whether you lose by 35 or you lose by one, it’s a loss. It doesn’t make it any easier (knowing) we went toe-to-toe with them; we should go toe-to-toe with them. That’s what I expect of this team, that’s how we coach them.”
Photos: Jarin Kobashigawa
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