As Saint Louis wrapped up its fourth straight HHSAA Open Division state title on Nov. 29 with a 42-6 beating of Kahuku, the postgame scene wasn’t one of jubilation.
Rather, it was more so one of relief. Subdued postgame handshakes and hugs seem standard for the Crusaders, who have come to expect victory every time they take the field. At the time of their triumph at Aloha Stadium, they finished the 2019 season at 12-0, running their winning streak up to 38 games.
Or so they thought.
Shortly after the season ended, the school agreed to participate in the 2019 GEICO State Champions Bowl Series, where it will take on national powerhouse and Florida state champion St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). The game will take place at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. HST. It will also be televised on ESPNU.
“It’s very special. Getting to play with my brothers one more time, it’s an honor,” Saint Louis slotback Koali Nishigaya said. “We work hard all season. Getting to play another game, it’s a blessing.”
St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t wrap up its state title until Dec. 14 in a 28-23 victory over Edgewater High School. The Raiders have 11 Florida state titles, tied with the Bolles School in Jacksonville for the most in state history. Saint Louis, of course, has made its own mark on the state of Hawaii.
“I think it just gets everyone all excited, you know? The No. 1 team from Florida and the No. 1 team from Hawaii,” Saint Louis head coach Cal Lee said. “I think it kind of makes it pretty interesting.”
Both Saint Louis and St. Thomas Aquinas are featured prominently in national polls this season. St. Thomas Aquinas is ranked No. 3 in the USA Today Super 25 while Saint Louis is currently at No. 6.
In the MaxPreps Xcellent 25, St. Thomas Aquinas is No. 5 while Saint Louis is No. 7.
“It’s a ton of motivation. We’re not only playing for ourselves, but we’re playing for everyone in this entire state,” Saint Louis quarterback Jayden de Laura said. “I know that we’ll have a good chunk of the island cheering for us. There’s gonna be people cheering for the other team too but we like that. We like that energy.”
How sustained has Crusaders’ success been over the past four seasons? The last time Saint Louis lost a game (Sept. 29 to Punahou), Tua Tagovailoa was its quarterback.
Members of those teams over those four years have went on to sign with 18 different FBS programs, headlined by Tagovailoa and his Heisman Trophy runner-up finish for Alabama in 2018.
When the Crusaders and Raiders square off on national television, Lee hopes his program can showcase the talent it has on both sides of the ball, not just at quarterback.
“Hopefully we play good and they can see that we have players that play on a much higher level. I think the exposure is probably the key,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of people up there that don’t know much about Saint Louis. They know about Tua, but the school that he came from, I think it kind of showcases our program.”
St. Thomas Aquinas certainly has its share of football alumni, most notably NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, as well as Nick and Joey Bosa.
A trio of four-star prospects leads this year’s 14-0 Raiders squad in receiver Marcus Rosemy (signed with Georgia), outside linebacker Derek Wingo (Florida) and offensive tackle Marcus Dumervil (LSU).
“We just exchanged films. I thought I was looking at the University of Florida,” Lee said. “They’re so big. … There’s some big boys out there. It’s a tremendous challenge for our players to be on that level.”
Saint Louis has a four-star trio of its own in linebackers Nick Herbig (Wisconsin) and Jordan Botelho (Notre Dame), as well as receiver Roman Wilson (Michigan). However, Hawaii Prep World has previously reported that Botelho will be unavailable for Saturday’s game.
“If someone is injured or sick or can’t play, the next man has to step up and perform and do the job,” Lee said. “We’ll make sure that we get 11 guys on the field.”
There is no official high school football national championship, but Herbig believes a win for Saint Louis should at least put the Crusaders in the discussion.
“I definitely think we’re worthy of that. We worked so hard to be where we’re at with this team,” he said. “I just really think that this win would be great. Not just for us, but for the whole state of Hawaii. This would put us on the map and show the rest of the world Hawaii has talent and we have good football players over here too.”
Saint Louis had an invitation to compete in last year’s GEICO Bowl Series, but it declined due to a variety of reasons. Ultimately, the Crusaders would not have faced a team the caliber of St. Thomas Aquinas. Centennial High of Arizona, who finished 2018 ranked 81st nationally by MaxPreps, was the likely opponent. The Crusaders finished seventh in the 2018 Xcellent 25.
The Crusaders left for Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon. While Saturday’s game is the main focus, the team plans to tour the UNLV campus as well as Hoover Dam, in addition to community service with local charities in Nevada. The team practiced at Bishop Gorman on Thursday night.
“We’re gonna answer all those ‘what if’ questions from the past years,” de Laura said. “There’s always those questions asked after the season because we haven’t had the opportunity to go up and compete for the national championship, but I think this opportunity that’s given to us, taking it, we can showcase that we can compete.”
The Saint Louis program hasn’t been to Las Vegas since its infamous trip to the ninth island in 1998. Lee, who was also the team’s head coach at the time, certainly hasn’t forgotten about it.
“You always learn, you know what I mean? I know people, they bring that thing up. … I always remember that,” Lee said. “We’ll make sure we go up there and the purpose is to play a football game. These kids are good kids.
“They just need guidance, because we’re taking a big group of kids. We gotta be in control whenever, wherever we go and be respectful because everyone knows who we are. I’m sure they’ll be on their best behavior.”
When Saint Louis takes the field on Saturday, its current dynasty will be tested like never before. The 38-game streak will be on the line.
To Lee, a win would simply be a win. The implications would be in the eyes of the beholder.
“If you win the game, I think you can talk about how good you are, playing against the competition you’re gonna face,” Lee said. “That’s just like in any level. High school, college or pros.
“If you win, there’s not much more you can say. People will know we beat a good team. How good are you? That’s what the score dictates.”