University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Athletic Director Jim Donovan retells the story of a 5-year-old Maui boy who saw the Warrior basketball team warming up before its game on the Valley Isle last December. The boy’s eyes grew wide, rivaling the kind of wonder that strikes children when they first set foot in Disneyland.
“For them, this is bigger than life,” says Donovan. “When we can impact those young people’s lives and make them feel like we’re Hawaiʻi’s team, it’s all worth it.”
Neighbor island fans can expect to see more UH teams in person, he pledges. “I really feel we’re the state’s team, but we’re located on Oʻahu. It’s up to us to get teams to the neighbor islands and play.”
The Warrior football team plans a spring Big Island practice April 9, 2011, at the Kamehameha Schools–Hawaiʻi campus in Keaʻau. Following a two-hour scrimmage beginning at 11 a.m., players and coaches will be available for autographs beginning at 1 p.m.
When the Warriors held practices on Maui and Kauaʻi the past two years, autograph sessions with fans lasted for hours. A softball clinic featuring Rainbow Wahine and UH Hilo Vulcan teams and a neighbor island trip for women’s soccer (Mānoa, Hilo) are also being discussed.
Since it’s not often feasible for neighbor island fans to travel to Oʻahu for games, such visits add a personal element to following the teams on television, radio or the internet, Donovan says.
UH teams big and small, from men’s basketball to men’s golf and women’s tennis, have played on the neighbor islands. In December 2010, men’s basketball returned to Maui for the first time in seven years, blowing past Chicago State before an energetic crowd in Lahaina Civic Center. The Rainbow Wahine hosted its 2010 basketball shootout tournament in Hilo, opening against nationally ranked UCLA in Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. In February 2011, men’s volleyball played California Baptist before a capacity crowd in Wailuku.
“It’s great. Everyone at War Memorial Gym was fantastic. You could tell they were appreciative,” recalls Coach Charlie Wade. “We appreciate the support from neighbor island fans, State Sen. Shan Tsutsui and Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa. It was a great night for me and the team.”
Tsutsui, who represents central Maui, had told Donovan years ago that team visits would mean a lot to neighbor island fans. The key to making it happen is partnerships, the athletic director says.
Hawaiian Airlines has sponsored football team trips to neighbor islands and the men’s volleyball trip to Maui. Neighbor island travel expenses are pretty nominal for men’s basketball, but can take a big bite out of smaller sports’ budgets.
Still, such trips allow more student athletes to play in front of their own home crowds. Nearly every UH team fields neighbor islanders, often in vital roles. The football squad had about a dozen last season, including safety Mana Silva (Big Island) and defensive linemen Kaniela Tuipulotu (Maui) and Kamalu Umu (Kauaʻi).
T.J. Kua (Kauaʻi), named Western Athletic Conference Golfer of the Week earlier this season, and four of his teammates are from the neighbor islands. So is Rainbow Wahine basketball player Keisha Kanekoa, who etched herself into the program’s record books by surpassing 1,000 career points this season. Her matches “at home” on the Big Island drew big crowds.
Kamehameha Schools-Maui graduate Kalaʻe Camarillo had to find more than 40 tickets for extended family when men’s volleyball played on Maui. The Kīhei setter got some court time and joined his team in hosting a clinic at Baldwin High School the next morning.
“The trip was a success in so many different ways,” says Wade.