With a rapidly expanding base of high school talent, the Hawaiian Islands have become something of a recruiting hotbed as of late, with dozens of FBS programs flocking to the Pacific island chain in hopes of landing the next great prospect.
The United States Naval Academy has been no exception, with the well known "Kapolei Connection" paying huge dividends for native Hawaiian and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. This winter, Navy landed another Kapolei product in fullback Cyril Ontai, beating out the likes of fellow service academies and WAC schools for the services of the bruising, in-your-face athlete. Recently I caught up with Cyril, and got the lowdown on why this special young man chose Annapolis as his college destination.
Adam Nettina (AN): Did you attend the Blue and Gold Game in Annapolis? If so, how was your experience? Have you met any of your future Navy teammates yet?
Cyril Ontai (CO): Yes, I attended one practice and the Blue and Gold game. It was a great experience. The weather was nice and it was great to see the coaches again and meet some new teammates. On the field, I was immediately greeted by Coach Speed and Coach Pehrson, and I received some big love from Coach Niumatalolo and Coach Judge and the rest of the staff. It was fun to watch the players in action and go through some warm-up drills. After practice, I was warned by Coach Johns that the practice I watched was a very mellow practice and that I would have to be ready for the real thing in the summer.
It was neat to see Aaron Santiago and Bruce Andrews from Hawaii in action and to meet the guys coming up from NAPS. It's awesome to go somewhere so far, and see others who have come from the same area. I'm looking forward to making close friends with the rest of team, too. I met a handful of recruits including Josh Patton, Ryan Paulson and Beau Haworth. Beau's family invited me to be a part of their family while I'm out there in Annapolis, and I appreciate that a lot. I also met Eric Kettani and that was pretty cool.
I'm glad I got the chance to go to the game. Both sides competed well. I thought Alex Teich did very well during the game, and it looks like Ricky Dobbs will be a great leader.
AN: For many Navy recruits the chance to play football in Annapolis comes as their only scholarship opportunity to play for an FBS (Division I-A) program. You however had several other FBS schools offer you scholarships. Which school offered, and why did you ultimately choose Navy over these schools?
CO: I've seen a handful of articles on this, and yet you're the first one to ask me. Early during the recruiting process, I had solid D1-A interest from schools such as Colorado, Stanford, San Diego State, Army, Vanderbilt and Hawaii. In the end, although I heard I received offers from other schools, I received paper offers from Army and Navy. I chose Navy for many reasons, but here's the one that stands out: When I came for the visit, it was during the football banquet, and you could feel the connection of the "Brotherhood." That locked me in.
AN: Many Navy fans are by now familiar with the so-called "Kapolei" connection between your high school at the Academy. How influential was your high school coach (former University of Hawaii LB Darren Hernandez) in the recruiting process with the Naval Academy?
CO: Coach Hernandez was very influential in the recruiting process. He speaks very highly of Navy, Coach Niumatalolo, the program, the Brotherhood, the facilities, the fans, game day, etc. Coach Hernandez works very hard for his boys on and off the field. He's a special type of high school coach. He personally spends hours putting together highlight tapes for the seniors and sends the tapes out. After signing day, he even moves on to help out the juniors. He works hard getting our names' out, knowing that we're isolated on the island.
AN: How influential were the examples of former Kapolei players Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada and Aaron Santiago in your decision to attend USNA. Have either of those two players given you advice about the transition into both the Academy and Division I football?
CO: I spoke with both Aaron and Kaipo when I was at the academy. They both told me the same thing - that the hardest thing is being away from home. It's a huge encouragement to see them push forward and to know that Kaipo will be graduating. Their success to overcome the challenges of the Academy and Division I football definitely played a part in my decision. Both of them are different. Kaipo had a "kolohe" (rascal) reputation, and Aaron had a mellow, studious reputation. I'm different, too, and kind of in between both of them. One thing we do have in common though is our drive, and I expect to bring this out on the field and in the classroom.
AN: As a native Hawaiian, what are your impressions of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo? Does his status as being the first Polynesian head coach help make the decision to attend college all the way on the East coast an easier one?
CO: Coach Niumatalolo is a great guy and a great coach. His character still reflects the island culture. Coach took care of me and my family while we were there, and that made a big impact on all of us. It's a huge privilege to play for him and an honor that he considered me. I feel like I should be calling him ‘uncle', but I know he's the head coach. Coach's status really doesn't make it easier. However, his presence does. Even if he was a position coach, I still would have felt the same way about the man and the academy—a good man and a great institution. What better place to be at?
AN: I understand you played as both a ‘B' back in Kaplei's option offense as well as in the secondary on defense. Which position were you recruited to play at Navy? Are you open to moving to other positions if needed?
CO: I was recruited to play the B-back position for Navy. I played B-back for Kapolei, and I also played outside linebacker and strong safety. I'll play anything. As a B-back for four years, I have the soft handoff down, which is an advantage for an option running back. I have an understanding of inside and outside tracks. I block well, and, if I play B-back, I don't intend to let anyone sack Dobbs. I also have tailback vision that can only enhance my running the ball. As a safety, I have the backfield vision, am able to make open-field plays, and have one-on-one coverage skills. As an outside linebacker, I have the force/contain techniques down, know how to keep my outside limbs free, and I cover the slot's wheel route fluidly. I have Ram Vela's Notre Dame play saved on my Youtube favorites for a reason. I think I compare to him, because I'm shorter than the average OLB, but with mad skills. One of the reasons I'm here at Navy is to serve the football team wherever the coaches feel they need me. So I will play anything.
AN: It seems like many people around the country are starting to take notice of high school football in Hawaii, with several big-name recruits like Manti Te'o and Roby Toma signing with teams outside of the traditional Pac-10 and WAC schools we've long associated with recruiting the Islands. Do you think high school football in Hawaii is underrated from a national perspective, and do you think we'll see more Hawaiian recruits signing with non-west coast teams in the future?
CO: Te'o and Toma are good athletes, and they are a good match with Notre Dame. I covered Toma during our All-Star practice, and he's a legitimate receiver. When I was a junior, I went to a camp in the mainland as a safety. During one-on-ones I covered the mainland receivers. Surprisingly, as a whole, they were pretty easy to cover. A year later I went to a camp in Maui, and I covered the Hawaii receivers. They were a lot harder to cover than the mainland receivers. Hawaii high school football as a whole is moving in the right direction, and if it continues on this pace it should balance off well.
And yes, I do think that more Hawaii boys will be seen at non-west coast teams in the future. The west coast schools seem to have the advantage because of name recognition. As the coaches come to the islands and the kids go to those schools, it builds name recognition in the islands for that school. I know that besides the PAC-10 schools, Texas Tech, Michigan State, Colorado and Notre Dame are already starting on the class of 2010.
AN: Do you know what you want to major in at the Academy?
CO: I'm undecided right now. There are three USNA gradates who attend my church. One is a pilot, another an engineer and the other is an oceanographer. I know that the Academy has much to offer, so it will take a little time to finalize my own personal decision.
AN: What do you know about the service commitment for after you graduate? Have any potential service selections (Marine Corps, Surface Warfare, Aviation, etc…) especially interested you?
CO: I know that after my four years at the academy I will make my 5 year commitment. I plan on going into surface warfare, but I still need to learn about the other areas.
AN: Finish the sentence. The one thing Navy fans should know about me is…
CO: I am a quiet athlete. When I'm off the field, I'm a very laid back person, and I love to meet new people. But when I'm on the field, I'm pretty much looking to lay someone out.
GoMids thanks Cyril for speaking with Adam Nettina, and wishes the high school senior only the best during his career as a Midshipmen and a Division I athlete. To get in touch with Adam, feel free to drop him a line atAdamNettina - at - gmail.com