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Whitworth builds Hawaiian pipeline by welcoming Polynesian culture

Thu., Nov. 9, 2017, 10:13 p.m.

Left to right, Whitworth football players from Hawaii: Jaylen Gonzales, Shai Pulawa,  offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield, Chase Takaki, Jarin Manuel. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Left to right, Whitworth football players from Hawaii: Jaylen Gonzales, Shai Pulawa, offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield, Chase Takaki, Jarin Manuel. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Chase Takaki grew up knowing he would have to eventually leave his home in Hawaii.

The now-senior wide receiver at Whitworth was faced with the choice so many young football players on the Hawaiian Islands face at the start of their college careers – either play for the University of Hawaii or start pricing out plane tickets to the mainland.

For the majority of Whitworth’s 18 players from Hawaii, leaving the island to play football elsewhere was never a difficult choice.

“My mom always told me, ‘Home is going to be there. Go out and explore. If you like it, try it out, but home is always going to be home,’ ” said Takaki, who grew up on the main island of Hawaii. “I always wanted to leave when I was young, so I was set. I was set for going out and trying it.”

Takaki first visited Pacific (Oregon) in the Northwest Conference, which has consistently recruited a large amount of players of Polynesian descent. Takaki was greeted by a few familiar faces – two of his high school quarterbacks played for the Boxers at the time.

But Takaki wasn’t looking for a piece of the islands. He wanted to be part of something different.

“It felt too much like home and I was looking to get away and try something new,” Takaki said.

So he talked to former head coach and recruiting coordinator John Tully ahead of the 2014 season and decided to play at Whitworth, where he would be the only Hawaiian player on the team his freshman year.

But it didn’t stay that way for long.

The Pirates brought in a new coaching staff that season, including head coach Rod Sandberg and offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield. Both were fascinated by the type of players Hawaii consistently produced.

“There’s a strong emphasis in Hawaii in just the culture around Hawaii and the toughness that comes with the sport, so they bring that toughness to our program,” Stanfield said.

They also usually tend to pack a lot of muscle and strength on the defensive side. Those who are a bit on the smaller side, like Takaki, have often had a type of quickness that has given an edge to Whitworth’s tough passing game.

The Hawaiian players have brought more than just a strong and athletic physique to the team – they’ve introduced a culture that emphasizes the importance of family.

“They call it Ohana,” Stanfield said, a concept he thinks has helped bring a sense of unity to the field.

Stanfield and Sandberg have made a point to travel to Hawaii a couple of times a year. They go to high school camps at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu every spring, and attend an annual four-day all-star tournament in December.

This year, Stanfield has added one more trip to his calendar – the Polynesian Bowl on Oahu at the end of January. The Polynesian Bowl, organized by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, is a premier high school football all-star game.

It’s another opportunity for Stanfield to get to the island and attract even more players of Polynesian descent to the program.

“Either that, or he likes the vacation,” Takaki joked.

This year, Takaki was joined at Whitworth by 23 others of Polynesian heritage, six of whom are from the mainland.

More than half of those who grew up on the islands are underclassmen and are still acclimating to the culture change – and to the weather.

“In Hawaii … it’s summer pretty much all the time,” said junior defensive back Shai Pulawa, who grew up on Oahu.

Although Pulawa and some of his Hawaiian teammates have enjoyed seeing the leaves change colors, the excitement of the white winters tend to wear off after a bit.

“Snow, I like it for like the first two weeks, and then I’m over it,” Pulawa said.

The Pirates have certainly helped along the acclimation process, not only for their football players, but for so many other students who have moved to Spokane from Hawaii.

Over the last few decades, Whitworth has attracted a significant number of students from the Hawaiian Islands, so many that the school has created a Hawaiian club and has engaged in an annual luau in the spring to celebrate Polynesian heritage.

“It’s been part of our tradition here,” said Stanfield, who remembers going to the luaus when he attended Whitworth in the late 1990s.

At that time, Whitworth’s quarterback led the luaus and performed the haka and other Polynesian dances. The haka, a traditional war dance that was used to intimidate the opposition before a battle, has recently been made popular by national sporting teams who will perform the dance ahead of games.

The Pirates don’t perform the haka on the football field, but most of the players have enjoyed going to Whitworth’s luau every spring to celebrate its culture.

Even Takaki, who wanted to escape the island culture for a few years in Spokane, has come to appreciate the celebration and the nostalgia it creates.

“It makes us feel a lot more comfortable,” Takaki said. “A lot more like home.”