Lihue, KAUAI — Of 132 student-athletes that participated in the third annual Life Champion Senior Bowl, none were more thankful to be in it than Saint Louis' Noah Alejado.
The Crusader slotback bounced back from a gruesome groin injury in the semifinals of the inaugural Open Division state tournament to play in the final game of his prep career at Vidinha Stadium.
Alejado, who was one of 10 Saint Louis players in the bowl game, had one reception for nine yards and two carries for 28 yards in Team Black's 34-21 win over Team White Saturday afternoon.
"I wasn't really planning on playing in this game, but with God's blessing, I stayed positive," said Alejado. "I was lucky it wasn't anything more serious. When I got hit, I could have broke my neck or get a concussion, but it was such a blessing that it was just a small injury that I could get surgery for. I got cleared the week before the game so I was really blessed with the opportunity to play in this amazing game.
When the Crusaders won the Open Division state championship over Kahuku three weekends ago, Alejado spent most of his time on the sideline on crutches and could barely walk. He said his faith helped carry him through the recovery process.
"Missing that game against Kahuku, I was bummed out, but God has a plan for everything. God really does. All my faith is in God."
The Life Champion Senior Bowl, put on by the Hawaii Football Club, also provides opportunities to win scholarship offers from the collegiate coaches that are allowed to check out the bowl game.
Alejado noted that colleges such as Valley City State University, Pacific University and Western Oregon University have shown interest in his services over the past couple days of practice.
"We're all trying to compete here, trying to get off the the island and make our parents proud. Go to college and get a scholarship so that they don't have to play."
Alejado, who led the Crusaders in receiving yards prior to the Open Division title game, added that there was no drop off in talent in players that participated Division II, Division I and Open Division level.
"They are all amazing kids," he said. "We're underrated as Hawaii players, but when it's time to compete, we all compete at the same level. Division II, Division I, Open Division, it doesn't matter. We're just going to ball out."
A RAM'S REDEMPTION
Three-hundred and eighty-six days.
That's how long Radford's Jonah Soakai had to wait before tasting victory again.
Soakai was a junior when Radford won the Division II state title over Kapaa in 2015. The Rams moved up to Division I the following year, but struggled and went 0-8.
The 6-foot-3, 170-pound senior started at free safety for Team Black and made two tackles in the team's win, one of which was a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return.
"Finally getting to win a game in my senior year feels good," said Soakai, an all-OIA Division I Blue Conference Second Team selection as a return specialist. "I just tried getting in very chance I could get. I took the advantage to go in and try to make plays."
Soakai added that he has already received a scholarship offer to play for Adam State.
Soakai wasn't the only player that was experiencing a win for the first time on the football field in 2016.
McKinley's two representatives in the bowl game, Nolan Gomez and Noah Lowe, played a part in Team Black's victory as the kicker and punter for the winning team.
The Tigers, who moved down to Division II in the offseason, had a rough season and finished the year with an 0-8 record.
Gomez, a 6-foot, 180-pound kicker, was thrilled to be one of the 132 players to play in the third edition of the annual bowl game.
"It's amazing because there's other people that would kill to get this instead of me," he said. "I pushed hard and worked hard for this all season and it got me to where I am today."
He also said he was eager to represent those that supported him throughout his high school career.
"I'm proud that I got to not only play for myself, but for my teammates, family and friends on Oahu," he said.
Lowe, who is 5-foot-11, said he enjoyed the opportunity to play with players from other teams.
"When I first came here, I was pretty intimidated by all the Saint Louis and Kahuku players, but they're all really nice people. They're going to make it far in life."
Two of the longtime fixtures amongst prep coaches in the state are Saint Louis quarterbacks' coach Vince Passas and Punahou offensive line coach Reggie Torres. The two served as co-head coaches opposite of each other Saturday.
Passas, a quarterback guru who helped mentor former Crusader greats Jason Gesser, Darnell Arceneaux, Tim Chang — and more recently, Tua Tagovailoa — headed up the winning Black team with Colorado-Mesa's Russ Martin, while Torres, the former Kahuku head coach who has three state championships to his name, led the White team alongside Southern Oregon defensive coordinator James Gravelle.
Both Passas and Torres have been involved with the Life Champion Senior Bowl since its inception three years ago.
"I've worked a lot of the all-star games and this, by far, beats them all because you've got the college coaches here recruiting, kids are getting looked at and a lot of kids are going to get opportunities to play at the next level because of this — and not just one college, but multiple colleges," Torres said.
The all-star game — which is the brainchild of husband and wife, Keala and Celeste Pule of the Hilo-based Hawaii Football Club — has grown with each other. In its inaugural year, the game included 90 players. Last year's edition featured 104 players. This year's game had 132 players from across the state as well as a handful of players from Samoa and Guam.
"It's gotten better, bigger and with more quality players," Torres said. "When we first started we had maybe seven linemen on each side, now we've got 13 to 14 linemen on each side. We had a lot of depth this year and a lot of good kids, too, so it great for the recruiters as well as us."
Passas shared much of the same sentiment that Torres did about the game.
"I'm almost sure like 90 percent of the kids that are involved in this game go on somewhere and that's what the Life Champion Bowl is about, creating opportunities for our young men of Hawaii," Passas said. "Keala and Celeste have done an amazing thing putting all of this together."
HURRICANES ON THE BLOCK
The Black team had a heavy influence of Kapolei players on the offensive line in tackles Mario "Pono" Fatafehi-Segovia, Akoni Kapihe, Donte Keliiholokai and center Josiah Haywood.
"It was just a fun experience playing with new o-linemen, playing with new quarterbacks we haven't met before, protecting them, keeping them safe — like how we did with Taulia (Tagovailoa), and just giving them the time they need to make plays," Kapihe said.
Kapihe relished the chance to play alongside his fellow Hurricanes in the final game of their prep careers.
"We basically grew up together from freshmen to senior year," Kapihe said. "We already had the chemistry together, we knew how to communicate with each other and work with each other. That is all we needed and it helped us a lot because we knew what each others strengths and weaknesses were and we just helped each other out."
GOVS COLLECT HARDWARE
Farrington saw four individual players collect awards at Saturday night's luau banquet at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Center in Lihue.
Black team quarterback Justin Uahinui was named the recipient of the Marcus Mariota Award, given to the game's most valuable player. Challen Faamatau won the Shawn Lauvao Award, for the offensive player of the game, while fellow White team running back TJ Tautolo was selected for the Kekuhaupio Award, as the most outstanding skill player for his team.
Also, Tainano Gaulua, a defensive lineman on the Black team, won the Ke Koolani award, given to the individual who best exemplifies a team player for his team.
A complete list of award winners follows:
Ke Koolani (team player)—Black: Tainano Gaulua (Farrington). White: Vili Fisiiahi (Kahuku).
Kekuhaupio (most outstanding skill player)—Black: Stokes Nihipali-Botelho (Kahuku). White: TJ Tautolo (Farrington).
Pukaua Ku Kilakila (leadership award): Tyler Vasega (Kapolei)
Ke Koa Onipaa (most outstanding big man)—Black: Jasen Pong (Pearl City). White: Tevita Otuvaka (Saint Francis).
Malama Kaiaula (community service award): Jaylen Ignatowski (Campbell)
Ka Lamaku Pio Ole (academic award): Dorian "Kawehi" Raboy-McGowen (Kamehameha-Maui).
Ihe (contribute to prep football): Brien Ing (ScoringLive)
Shawn Lauvao Award (offensive player of the game): Challen Faamatau (Farrington).
Tyson Alualu Award (defensive player of the game): Kainoa Davis (Maui)
Marcus Mariota Award (most valuable player): Justin Uahinui (Farrington)
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