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Whitworth recruiting 18 football players from Hawaii high schools

September 22, 2017 - 12:05am

It’s hard to figure out whether Whitworth’s football team or the nearby grocery store has benefited more from the Pirates’ shift in recruiting under head coach Rod Sandberg.

Three years ago, Chase Takaki practiced for the first time with the Pirates after graduating from Konawaena. Out of the 100 or so players on the field that day, only one other person was from Hawaii.

This year, Takaki came out for the first practice of fall camp for his senior season and was swarmed by a Hawaii presence.

Eighteen players, including nine freshmen and five sophomores, now fill the Whitworth roster.

For Takaki, that means buying a lot more steaks at the grocery store.

“Yeah I try to have everyone over at the house on weekends to barbecue. There’s definitely a different feel, that’s for sure,” said Takaki, a 5-foot-9 receiver. “Just trying to bring back that home feeling. A lot of them are young and I think it’s kind of a gateway for them to feel more comfortable as incoming freshmen versus other freshmen here that are just trying to fit in.”

First come, first served is the way it works both at the house and at Whitworth, which has used some of its Hawaii ties to quickly increase the local presence in Spokane, Wash.

Sandberg, now in his fourth season as head coach, took over a team that did most of its recruiting in Washington and California.

One of his first big decisions was to shift some of the recruiting attention to Hawaii.

For the past two years, Sandberg has attended the Life Champion Senior Bowl, first on the Big Island and most recently on Kauai.

There’s also a school counselor at Whitworth with Hawaii ties and Waianae coach Walter Young is an alum of the school as well.

Of the nine freshmen, seven played for the Seariders last year, and Sandberg has no problem using those ties to his advantage.

“Our program stands for the four ‘F’s’ — faith, future, family and fun,” Sandberg said. “Hawaii definitely embraces all four of those things in the way they embrace the football culture and the family atmosphere.

“They are receptive to leaving Hawaii to be a part of a community that embraces their culture, and that’s something our school has always done. There’s a strong Polynesian community here in Spokane, and they take care of their own.”

The Northwest Conference is a second home to Hawaii-bred football players. Pacific in Forest Grove, Ore., has loaded up on Hawaii players in recent years and has 26 on the roster this season.

Seven-time defending NWC champion Linfield (Ore.) has nine players on the roster this year from the islands.

The Pirates are attempting to follow in the same path as those schools and already have reaped some of the rewards. Junior Shai Pulawa, a Leilehua graduate, is a starting safety, and Pearl City alum P-Jay Solomon is a starting defensive tackle for a team that has given up a total of 23 points to start the season 3-0.

”It’s a fun group,” Sandberg said. “This is our fourth year as a coaching staff, so a lot of these seniors like Chase were freshmen our first year here. It feels like this is the culmination of that turnaround of the culture. We have a tight-knit senior group and a lot of talent among the underclassmen as well.”

Takaki has enjoyed the Pirates’ spread option attack. He scored his first career touchdown on a 92-yard reception last year and added a touchdown catch in Saturday’s 53-0 shutout of La Verne.

The Pirates have outscored their first three opponents 158-23 and are ranked No. 15 in Division III heading into next week’s showdown with Linfield to open conference play.

“That will be our make it or break it game right there,” Takaki said. “It’s fun for everybody on our offense, because we’re really deep and got guys at every position. But I think as of right now, our defense has really stepped up a lot this year and that’s been key. That was a big emphasis to our team coming into the season.”

Takaki is one of nine players already with a receiving touchdown this season and is averaging 28.7 yards per return on three kickoffs.

Pulawa is averaging four tackles a game, while Jaylen Gonzales has gotten time as a freshman at linebacker and made the most of it with six tackles, including one for a loss.

“I think all of our new guys from Hawaii are really talented and working hard to get on the field, but of all of them, I think Jaylen has caught on the quickest and has a chance to be a good player for us,” Takaki said.

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