Epenesa stands out in Polynesian Bowl

Edwardsville (Ill.) defensive end A.J. Epenesa drilled quarterback Connor Neville of Wilsonville (Ore.) in the Polynesian Bowl on Saturday night. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.
Edwardsville (Ill.) defensive end A.J. Epenesa drilled quarterback Connor Neville of Wilsonville (Ore.) in the Polynesian Bowl on Saturday night. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

There was little doubt after the inaugural Polynesian Bowl on Saturday night at Aloha Stadium that the defensive lines of both teams were the dominant group.

At one point, Team Mariota lined up a threesome of Aliki Vimahi (Kahuku), Nakoa Pauole (Kamehameha) and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (Kapolei), who combined for five tackles for loss and played a big role in holding Team Stanley to 38 total yards rushing.

The only problem was, 38 yards rushing was an explosion compared to what Team Stanley’s defense did to Team Mariota.


Led by the top-rated player in the game, defensive end A.J. Epenesa of Edwardsville (Ill.), an Iowa commit, Team Stanley held Team Mariota to minus-3 yards rushing for the entire game in a 9-7 victory.

Epenesa, who stands 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, was everywhere from the opening drive, which ended with his first sack and forced fumble that the offense managed to recover.

With the game still scoreless in the second quarter, Epenesa beat the right tackle off the end and chased quarterback Connor Neville all the way to the far sideline before getting the strip sack from behind that was recovered by Team Stanley. It led to the only score of the first half.

A.J. Epensa shared a laugh with Ma'a Tanuvasa after winning defensive player of the game honors at the Polynesian Bowl. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.
A.J. Epensa shared a laugh with Ma’a Tanuvasa after winning defensive player of the game honors at the Polynesian Bowl. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

Even more impressive were two plays in a span of about a minute in the third quarter. A quick pass to the far side of the field saw Epenesa react from his defensive spot with a dead sprint to the sideline, where he drilled Team Mariota tight end Hunter Bryant, who is 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. Three players later, quarterback Alakai Yuen scrambled to the sideline and attempted to make a cut back inside when Epenesa, again on a dead sprint from his defensive end spot, buried another player with a monster hit.


“We were trying to win. The coaches preached all week that we’re here to win and we’re not out here to be each other’s friends,” Epenesa said. “I mean, all of these guys are my friends, but like I said, we’re out here on the field trying to get the ‘W’ and I was out here competing.”

Three out of every four players in the game were of Polynesian descent and they came from all parts of the country. Epenesa is from the Midwest and lives right near the Missouri/Illinois border. He had never been to Hawaii and never really had a chance to learn about his cultural heritage.

“We’ll go down as the only Polynesian family in our area,” Epenesa said. “There are no other Polynesian people where I’m from. It’s cool to be the only ones although sometimes I wish we had other (Polynesians) with us but it’s all good.”


It’s what made this game so special and got the five-star recruit to come play. As much fun as the game on Saturday, the entire week leading up to it, and especially the visit on Wednesday to the Polynesian Cultural Center, was what stood out for Epenesa.

“It was awesome,” he said as he shook his head thinking about the trip. “It was really awesome.”

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