The West High football team traveled from Anchorage to Hawaii this week to play ʻAiea High, and for senior Mason Tanoa, it will be his first time seeing several members of his family, including his mother, in nearly three years.
His mom and some of his siblings haven’t seen him play a single snap of football since he moved to Alaska in early 2021 during COVID-19. His family members still living in Hawaii will be showing out in force Friday when the Eagles take the field in Honolulu.
“I’m super excited for it,” Tanoa said. His excitement level: “Right now it’s a 10 out of 10.”
He was born in American Samoa and in fifth grade moved to Hawaii, where he first started playing football. There, he played up until his freshman year, when he competed on a junior varsity team.
Playing in front of so many family and friends is going to feel like a home game for Tanoa. The only person more excited than him may be his mom.
“She is super excited,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in almost three years.”
To be able to play one last high school football game in the 50th state is something that Tanoa never imagined would be possible.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “I never thought Alaska would go back to Hawaii. It will feel like I’m back home.”
For youth and high school sports teams in Alaska, opportunities to take the show on the road out of state can come few and far between.
It’s been 11 years since the West football team last traveled to play a game in Hawaii.
The Eagles’ first team trip to the Aloha State was for the 2012 season opener, when they flew to Honolulu to play then-nationally ranked powerhouse Punahou School. While the final box score resulted in a lopsided 48-0 defeat, the game itself was far from the most memorable part of the experience for the players and coaches who went.
“We have coaches on staff that went on that trip, and they talk about that as being some of the best memories they’ve had of a lifetime,” West head coach Tim Davis said. “What we really want to commit to here at West High School is providing the best football experience for our students.”
He sees tremendous value in the learning experiences that come with rare ventures like this trip, including fundraising, learning how to travel, and being an upstanding citizen who the community will want to support.
“For those guys who still think about that trip as one of the best things that they went through in their high school career — some guys that said that won state championships. It was an eye-opener for me,” Davis said.
West quarterbacks coach Conor Feckley was a senior and the starting quarterback on that 2012 team and echoed similar sentiments to Davis.
“The memories that we made on that trip, we can still joke about things with just about all the guys from our team,” he said. “Obviously the game experience was a lot of fun and didn’t quite go the way we wished, but we don’t remember it for that.”
Once they began talking about going to Hawaii again, even though he wouldn’t be suiting up and taking the field this time around, Feckley was filled with the same excitement and anticipation.
“Because we have such a great group of kids, if there’s any way we can emulate the memories and the fun that we had last time we went, and we could do that again with this group of kids, it could be really special,” he said.
Feckley believes the “coolest part about this whole thing” is the type of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will take place.
“At the end of the day, it’s still football, but there are kids that have never been on an airplane before, kids that have never even left the state, kids that haven’t had a chance to play in front of friends and family,” he said.
Putting it all together
After a couple years of assistant coaches putting a bug in Davis’ ear, what “really kicked the door down” on planning for a new trip was the arrival of a pair of coaches on staff. Brothers Tony and Drew Navarro, who played at ‘Aiea, helped him get in touch with their former coach, who still runs the program.
“It’s a super awesome opportunity to go against a guy that has mentored a lot of young men in the most positive ways,” Davis said.
They began talking about the logistics of what it would take to make the trip happen in November of last year. By December, they were ready to “pull the trigger” and begin the fundraising process.
“We’ve been doing everything from online fundraising, lots of yard work and trying to help the community,” Davis said. “The community has been huge with tons of sponsorships.”
They made sure that each sponsor that donated to their cause is associated with a kid on the roster who is going.
“That kid is going to look at that roster and see his name and say, ‘Hey, the painters union helped me out,’” Davis said. “We also wanted to make this an opportunity to reach out to the community, especially the trades.”
Since only about 10% of kids who play high school football go on to play in college, Davis believes that it’s paramount to set up the ones who don’t make it to the sport’s next level for their next stage in life.
“We have 90% of our guys who are ready to go into the labor force,” he said. “So we really wanted to team up so that when they leave and walk off the stage, they’re like, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity for me to get involved with this trade because I remember they sponsored me to go on a trip to Hawaii.’”
During their Week 1 game against the Colony Knights, the Eagles held a fundraiser for Maui wildfire victims. Enstar Natural Gas Co. reached out and told the team that however much they raised, Enstar would donate a matching amount to the team’s trip fund.
”People were even more willing to help us out and donate to us,” Davis said.
Lessons learned from the first voyage
Last time around, West High was only able to take around 30 players and a few staff on the trip, which resulted in even faster attrition for those who saw the field. This year, 45 players will make the journey, including some of their junior varsity players who often come up to varsity.
“We told them that if you fundraise and work for it, you’re going to go,” Davis said.
Their previous experience taught them other important lessons that have helped them better prepare this time around, including having the game take place at night instead of high noon, establishing a clear understanding of a code of conduct, and most importantly, emphasizing the importance of hydration.
“Obviously, everyone’s got to be on their best behavior,” Feckley said. “We’re there on a business trip to play a football game. Yes, we are going to be able to have some fun but I think it’s going to be knowing those limitations of what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Creating lifelong memories
Though the team isn’t going to be in Hawaii as long as last time, they still plan on doing fun activities such as sightseeing, visiting the University of Hawaii, going to the beach and perhaps visiting the Pearl Harbor monument again.
“It’s going to be tricky timing-wise because of the lines and getting on the boats, but if we can make that work, we haven’t written (visiting Pearl Harbor) off,” Davis said.
Since a lot of hard work, effort and fundraising goes into making trips like this happen from a logistical sense, making it an annual venture would be tough. But Feckley wouldn’t mind doing it on a more frequent basis, such as every four years, so that multiple generations of Eagles can have the opportunity to make memories that will last a lifetime.
“We have a chance to make a lot of those magical moments happen with this trip,” Feckley said. “We’re just hoping to have a good time and have these experiences and memories to share for years and years down the road.”