It was a maulers’ night in the trenches, but the most outstanding players of the Polynesian Hall of Fame Bowl turned out to be rangy and even balletic.
Daniel Heimuli, an uncommitted linebacker out of Menlo Park (Calif.) with torpedo-like finishing ability, was named the most valuable defensive player of the all-star game. His Team Mauka lost, 27-7, but he was seemingly everywhere in and out of the box, including a fast-closing sack of Team Makai quarterback Gunner Cruz. He covered about 20 yards in barely 2 seconds.
“We were very physical. We didn’t give up most of the time. Our D-linemen got us extension and forced their quarterbacks to try and make plays,” Heimuli said.
Heimuli, Laiatu Latu (Washington via Carmichael, Calif.) and Alphon Tupuhala (Federal Way, Wash.) each had six tackles to lead Team Mauka. Heimuli had a team-high 3.5 tackles for loss. He’s looking forward to keeping the MVP trophy high on a shelf in his bedroom.
“This one means a lot to me. It’s my only bowl game so I’m going to remember this forever,” said Heimuli, whose final college choices are Oregon, Washington, Utah, UCLA and Alabama.
Team Makai wide receiver Makea “Puka” Nacua of Orem (Utah) was superb with a six catches for 93 yards, including a 29-yard TD haul with tip-toe body control with 10 seconds left in the half. That pushed Team Makai’s lead to 17-0. It took a replay evaluation by the officiating crew upstairs to relent and give Nacua and quarterback Jacob Conover. Nacua, who has committed to USC, never doubted his footwork.
“It came from God, really. I work a lot to try to perfect my craft at the receiver position and my receivers coach, Ross Apo, and I’ve had a lot of great coaches help me,” said Nacua, who was voted offensive MVP. “A lot of hard work. That’s a drill we work on every day.”
Puka, in Hawaiian language, generally means “hole.” However, in Samoan, Nacua said, it means something quite different.
“In Samoan, it means fat and chubby. It’s from when I was a baby and it kind of stuck. Going up through school, everybody knows me as Puka even though I slimmed out,” he said.
The return of former Kapolei quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa whetted the appetites of fans hoping for a high-scoring output by Team Mauka, but he was hurried often by the front four of Team Makai, even though blitzing was prohibited in this exhibition game. Tagovailoa still managed to move the ball in spite of the constant scrambling and O-line penalties. After the game, he enjoyed the company of a couple of future Alabama teammates.
“These are my boys right here,” said Tagovailoa, who moved to Alabaster (Ala.) after his sophomore year to be with his family and older brother Tua Tagovailoa. “I feel good. That (Team Makai) defense, it’s an all-star game so they’re all good. We had fun all week.”
He finished the game 13-for-24 for 166 yards with one TD and two interceptions.
For a part of the first half, it was Punahou players who got the spotlight. Safety Kaulana Makaula snagged a key interception in the back of the end zone for Team Makai in the first quarter. Three minutes later, Tamatoa Falatea (four receptions, 52 yards) hauled in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cruz, a future Washington State Cougar.
Early in the second quarter, placekicking ace Tim Horn drilled a 34-yard field goal, one of his two 3-pointers.
There were numerous, notable plays by local players, including a fumble recovery by Kahuku’s Tausili Fiatoa (Navy) in the first quarter. Falatea was a reliable go-to chain-mover and caught at TD pass that gave Team Makai a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
For the most part, it was a clean, hard-hitting game filled with intermittent delays as some players made their oral commitments to colleges on CBS’s sports channel.
For Saint Louis trenchermen Faatui Tuitele and Arasi Mose, it was a week to remember. Banquets. Visits to the North Shore and Shriners Hospital. The Hall of Fame banquet.
“It was a great, humbling experience going against great competition on the Makai team. It was even better to go against Arasi, my teammate and brother my whole high school career, lining up against him in our last game. It’s an experience I’ll cherish the rest of my life,” said Tuitele, the Star-Advertiser defensive player of the year. “We had fun with it. It wasn’t fun losing, but I’m going on to play at Washington. I’ll get my mind ready and my body ready.”
Offensive lineman Mose contended with a horde of top-flight defensive linemen and enjoyed one more high school game at Aloha Stadium. He’ll be back soon when freshman season at Hawaii begins.
“It’s saddening, but it’s great ending my high school career with a dub,” he said. “I enjoyed going against the top players in the country. I feel like I can get better competing with the best. It’s going to be a long ride with UH. I went over with Coach (Mark) Weber and they run almost the same exact thing as Saint Louis, just a few mental changes.”
Another Hawaii recruit, linebacker Darius Muasau, felt like this was an awakening of sorts.
“I had fun. It’s a whole new experience, different from what I’ve experienced back here at home. These are the top recruits from all over the country,” said Muasau, who said he has added about 10 pounds of muscle this winter. “I have a lot of improvement to do, a lot of muscle to put on and be ready for next season.”
He’s learning quickly to shed 300-pound blockers.
“I did all right with shed-blocking. It’s kind of tough. I got around them sometimes, and sometimes they got me,” Muasau said.
Kahuku’s versatile defensive playmaker, Nalu Emerson, is embracing the future.
“The memories. I’ll remember the brotherhood. We’re all related through Polynesian blood. It’s been nice making new friends and making new relationships. They’re all really chill and this game was amazing to be in. It’s a blessing,” he said.
Emerson is still uncommitted about his choice of college.
“As of right now, I’m still waiting. We’ll see what happens Feb. 6. I’m just taking my time. Enjoying the recruiting process,” said Emerson, who expects to be a rover in college. “I’m excited.”
As Emerson headed to the locker room, he was greeted by almost two dozen young fans at the bottom of the bleachers asking for gear, all in Kahuku shirts and hats.
For Sean Dollars, the shifty running back from Mater Dei (Calif.), it was a time to share the joy when the game ended. He was one of several players who gave away jerseys and other gear. The Oregon signee gave away his cleats.
“I think I’ve got enough cleats. I got 15,” he said. “I gave this one dude my cleats. He was sitting by my mom the whole time. Anyone who respects my mom, my family, you know, they got my respect.”
Dollars is ready for the college experience, having traveled for combines and other events over the years.
“I feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to do with my senior year and capped it off in Hawaii. That was big to me,” he said. “I came out here and played with a whole bunch of people from different types of places. I love that most.”
Dollars also gave away his pristine, brand-new red-and-black Team Mauka helmet.
“All those little kids wanted something from me,” he said. “But there’s this one little girl who was asking for my helmet so, you know, I gave it to her.”