FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM|
Playing key roles for Damien this season are, from left, kicker and defensive end Cory Mullen, free safety Kyle Meheula, strong safety Fehi Sevelo, running back Ranson DeCosta, defensive tackle Sean-Michael Stoltzman and linebacker Brennan Dela Cruz.
In Seventh Heaven
Damien is just one win away
from capturing its first state
Every year, without notice, one team becomes the darling of high school football.
First Hawaiian Bank
Saint Louis (9-1) vs. Kahuku (13-0), at Aloha Stadium, 8 p.m.
Damien (5-5) vs. Aiea (9-2), at Aloha Stadium, 5 p.m.
Last year it was Castle.
This year, it's Damien.
The Monarchs (5-5) don't know how to lose the big games.
"They've been coming up from the dead for the last four games," school president Brother Greg O'Donnell said yesterday.
Damien was 1-5 before rallying to dispatch Pac-Five 42-40 to stay alive for a state tournament berth. The Monarchs then took out favored Iolani 28-21 for the Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II title and their first state berth.
Facing heralded Kapolei, Damien pulled off a 20-14 state tournament shocker and followed up by traveling to Kauai to knock off Waimea 17-13.
Now, the Monarchs are one win away from their first state championship. They play Aiea at Aloha Stadium at 5 p.m. Friday in the inaugural D-II title game.
State crowns in any sport are few and far between for Damien, which has two in cross country (1969 and '70) and one in bowling ('93).
"The kids are in seventh heaven," O'Donnell said. "I see kids walking around proud to wear their Damien shirts. There was a time when I wasn't too sure about how they felt about wearing them. We're known more for our academics."
O'Donnell is responsible for the push to classify the ILH. Two years ago, he was sick of his kids being blown out (including one 84-0 shellacking) by bigger and better competition and wrote a letter to the league of the school's intentions to forfeit two games against Saint Louis.
Negotiations soon followed and it resulted in the creation of two divisions. It helped to pave the way for two-tiered state tournaments, which were implemented this year.
The movement helped Damien more than O'Donnell ever imagined.
"We've been playing football for 40 years and never had a league title, let alone a playoff game," he said. "But that's what happens when you play schools two or three times bigger in an unfair system."
The Damien players are fully aware of their historic run, but are thinking more about the one opportunity to finish off the season as state champions.
"We'll come out to play our best and Aiea will come out to play their best," senior running back Ranson DeCosta said. "We'll have the upper hand as long as we bring our A game."
A handful of other seniors point to summer workouts as the turning point of the season.
"All that hard work for four years is finally paying off," kicker and defensive end Cory Mullen said. "This offseason we did a lot of lifting and running, even though we're committed to other sports, too. I knew we could be a pretty good team in (August) scrimmages against Kapolei and Kailua. Our defensive unit didn't allow them to score."
Strong safety Fehi Sevelo acknowledged that it's been a season to remember, but he's still holding out for the most memorable moment.
"It all started out our freshman year and we've bonded and that's how we got to where we are," Sevelo said. "We wouldn't be here without that togetherness. The highlight for me, I think, is yet to come. We're still in it, so we'll see what happens."
Defensive tackle Sean-Michael Stoltzman has an answer for those who think the Monarchs got lucky.
"Luck is opportunity showing itself and we took advantage of all our opportunities," he said. "We believe in ourselves and we want to go out with a bang."
Free safety Kyle Meheula will never forget Sept. 13 when Damien beat Pac-Five 32-6.
"That was our first ILH victory in the four years us seniors have been here and that was our turning point," Meheula said. "This is the first year we've made it somewhere."
For linebacker Brennan Dela Cruz, who co-head coach Rudy Alejo said is the "glue" of the defense, winning 42-40 on the last play in the second meeting against Pac-Five was one of the many golden moments.
"That was the big highlight, it was our homecoming and our offense brought us back," Dela Cruz said. "It was real emotional for us."
Togetherness is the theme of what Dean Nakagawa, the team's other co-head coach, has been calling the "Damien Revolution" since before the season started.
Even the coaches share the top post, as O'Donnell is proud to point out.
"Everyone says you can't have co-head coaches. Why can't you?" he said.
Most people thought the Monarchs couldn't come close to a Division II championship.
Now, the team and a bunch of amazed fans around the state are thinking, "Why can't they?"