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Sunday, December 20, 2009

BYU and Oregon State rosters awash in Polynesians

CORVALLIS -- When Oregon State meets BYU in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas on Tuesday, it will be a matchup of ranked teams (No. 15 vs. No. 16), efficient quarterbacks (Sean Canfield vs. Max Hall) and some of the most physical players in college football.

The last component will come courtesy of Polynesian players who are part of the Beavers' and Cougars' rosters, which boast two of the largest delegations of Polynesians in major college football. There will be close to 40 Polynesian players on the sidelines Tuesday.

Oregon State and BYU don't meet on the field often, but when it comes to recruiting Polynesian players, the two are old foes.

"I think both programs are attempting to target Polynesian kids and both programs are doing a very good job at creating a familiar atmosphere that kids feel like they can fit in with," said BYU assistant Robert Anae. "Developing an atmosphere where (Polynesians) feel like they can fit in is more important than how your facilities look."

Oregon State tapped into the Polynesian network long ago with the help of assistants Mark Banker and Mike Cavanaugh, both of whom lived and coached in Hawaii at one point. But recruiting Polynesian players was nothing new to head coach Mike Riley.

When Riley was an assistant at Linfield in the late 1970s, working under Ad Rutschman as the defensive coordinator, the Wildcats had 24 Polynesian players on their team, 10 of them starters.

"Linfield, in general, was very well known for their recruiting of Polynesians (from Hawaii)," Riley said. "They played ... with great respect for the game and great passion."

They are also known for what Anae said is a "very physical brand of football."

"There's kind of a 'prove me' phase in Poly culture, and that's exactly what college athletics are in a nutshell," he said.

One player who has proved himself is BYU's Harvey Unga, a punishing running back who leads the Cougars with an average 92.4 rushing yards .

Unga, a junior, is the cousin of OSU linebackers and brothers Uani and Feti Unga. Harvey Unga's accomplishments make Oregon State safety Suaesi Tuimaunei proud.

"I think we've been coming up for awhile now," said Tuimaunei about Polynesians in general. "I always like hearing that Poly people are doing good."

Other than Oregon State and BYU, the two schools with large Polynesian contingents are Utah and Hawaii. But slowly, other programs nationwide are realizing Polynesians can play.

"I was talking to one of our coaches the other day and we were seeing a trend pulling along in the West," Harvey Unga said. "UCLA is trying to pull some Poly guys in, Wyoming has a few. Other teams are kind of starting to catch on."

Added Anae: "For a long time it was a well-kept secret and only a couple programs were recruiting kids from the islands."

At Oregon State, Polynesian players fit in well with the family atmosphere Riley and his staff have created.

"I don't know which came first: the chicken or the egg," Riley said. "I think they recognize that family's important here and I think they add to that because of their strong suits of family and culture."

Tuesday's game has potential to turn into a shootout with Canfield and Hall, but should also provide some big hits.

"It's definitely going to be a hard-fought game with all the Polys banging heads," said Harvey Unga, laughing. "I don't know, we're a prideful people. We'll probably take that into consideration and see who's tougher. But we also know how to have fun."

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