Saint Louis was the last high school football team in Hawaii to play a game in 2019, back when the Crusaders had their 38-game win streak snapped by Florida’s St. Thomas Aquinas in Las Vegas as part of the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series.

After the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 season, Saint Louis will also be the first team in 2021 to play an official game. The Crusaders depart for Vegas on Tuesday to take on Bishop Gorman on Friday, returning to the site of their most recent contest 20 months later. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. HST and will be streamed on NFHS Network (link here).

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At a recent Saint Louis practice, coach Ron Lee joked that he was undefeated as a head coach after taking over for his brother, Cal, in February 2020. After a year and a half of multiple cancelations and delays, he’s just glad his team gets a chance to take the field in a true game setting. A handful of scrimmages were held in the spring, but they were mostly in controlled environments.

“Happy that we’re having a season. I see how it was when COVID hit and not playing and now watching the seniors, it was hard. Really hard. I see the kids now, they’re practicing, they’re playing together. What a difference that we’re going and the positive,” Lee said. “The kids that are playing and the ones that didn’t last year, it’s really sad for the kids. They understand 100 percent how fortunate they are that they are playing, and they show it. Enthusiasm, the energy when they come out here.

“It’s hard, it’s hard as it’s ever been, but they work hard because they have this opportunity. They know what it was like not to have it. Happy for the kids, having fun and we didn’t have that up until this last six months or three months. So that part is good. Let’s have some fun.”

Only players fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be making the trip for Saint Louis. Lee estimates that count will be in the neighborhood of 60 to 65 players. Come game time, the team that takes the field on Friday will look markedly different than the team in 2019, which boasted a consistent top-10 national ranking and a handful of players who went on to play for Power Five programs, such as quarterback Jayden de Laura (Washington State), linebacker Nick Herbig (Wisconsin) and receiver Roman Wilson (Michigan), among others.

Saint Louis beat Bishop Gorman 31-19 at Aloha Stadium on Aug. 30, 2019, but Lee acknowledges that both teams have changed since. As for what national rankings look like heading into the 2021 season opener, BG is currently No. 12 in the country according to MaxPreps, while Saint Louis is No. 30.

The Gaels, like the Crusaders, did not have a fall season in 2020 but were able to have a handful of games in the spring. There will also be some extra familiarity between the two teams, as nearly a dozen players on Gorman’s squad originally hail from the islands, including sophomore starting quarterback Micah Alejado.

“Both teams are really different. I thought they were a good team when we played them. They were well-prepared. We really had to execute, but we had a very experienced team,” Lee recalls. “When you look at where the defense went, nine or 10 of them went to Division I. Offense, all four wide (receivers) went to Division I and played. Now, we don’t have that. We don’t have a ton of Division I players. It’s a whole different deal now. At Gorman, I know they have good athletes and we’ll see how they line up. I think that we have a good plan, a good plan offensively and defensively and now we gotta go execute.”

Dennis “Tasi” Tadio was a sophomore when Saint Louis played against St. Thomas Aquinas. The then-reserve linebacker stepped up in a big way against the Raiders with multiple tackles for loss.

After not having an official season in 2020, Tadio is now a senior and tasked with being one of the leaders for the Crusaders defensively.

“It’s good. We have a good gameplan, just go up there and smash them in the mouth and have fun with it,” Tadio said. “It’s good to be back because we didn’t play a real game in like a year so yeah, it’s good to be back in the mix.

“We’re just gonna go hard, make every down count and have fun with it.”

Following a long line of quarterbacks to make a name for themselves during and after their time suiting up for the Men of Kalaepohaku, senior AJ Bianco appears to be the next name on the list.

“It feels great just being the guy now and I’m super excited, especially not having the season last year and I feel like a lot of us feel this way, not having a season and a lot of us, this being our first time being able to show what we got so I’m super excited along with everyone else,” Bianco said.

“It’s super special seeing the guys before me. I was here with Chevan (Cordeiro) and I was here with Jayden, I looked up to those guys. Those guys are great players and great people and I look forward to making a name for myself, too.”

Bianco, a 6-foot-4 Maui native, currently holds scholarship offers from Nebraska, Washington State and Hawaii.

“In practice, he’s been doing a heck of a job. He doesn’t run like de Laura and Chev, but he’s smart, he’s got a good arm, he’s been with us for three years,” Lee said. “He didn’t play much but he’s accurate, he’s got big-time qualities. Now it’s gonna be under pressure. He’ll get better. He’s better now than he was two months ago but we’ll see against a team that’s fast, athletic. We’ll see how he executes. But he’s a big part of it, making good decisions. We’ve given him a lot more than we’ve given the other guys in the past. He has a lot of options to check off and gets a lot of pre-snap reads. That stuff, he’s really advanced more than the other guys. Let’s see if he puts that out. It’s what we need to see.”

Bianco has been on the Saint Louis varsity roster since he was a freshman, but he has yet to start a game for the Crusaders. That will change come Friday.

“I think just bringing the energy, setting the tone early and staying together,” Bianco said when asked about the keys to the Gorman game. “It’s gonna be our first live action in a while so it might be a little rusty but just gotta stay together, stick to the gameplan and just go out there and ball out.”