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SOU football embracing the haka

Before preseason camp got started, Masi Tunoa and Josiah Maglente-Tonu went to Southern Oregon head football coach Charlie Hall with an idea.

It wasn’t anything to do with how their team should play.

Instead, it was what the Raiders should do right before they take the field.

“The haka was performed by the Maori people to get their warriors prepared for battle, so I thought why not take that and bring it into a football perspective where we can take that same energy and get us ready for a game,” said Tunoa, a senior defensive lineman from Kapolei, Hawaii, said. “We had a short (battle cry) the last two years. Before our senior year, Josiah and I were talking about it and we wanted to change it.”

And there, SOU’s new pre-game haka was born.

The haka is a battle cry that has origins with the indigenous people of New Zealand. It’s become synonymous with rugby teams, but has always been a ritual among Polynesian cultures that goes well beyond just sports.

Tunoa and Maglente-Tonu are part of the large contingent Southern Oregon football players with Polynesian heritage — a figure that is around 20 percent, according to Hall, a former social studies teach at Ashland High School.

As the man in charge of leading the Raiders’ version of the haka, Tunoa went through plenty of preparation to help teach his teammates from far and wide, up and down the West Coast, their newest pre-game element after they walk out of the locker room and past the Coach Howard rock.

Seeking help from a childhood friend, Tunoa used his own words to ensure that SOU is haka meaningful beyond just something to yell before kickoff.

“It’s to give us confidence because in the words we say that our superiority will reign and people will remember who we are,” Tunoa said.

And make no mistake about it: SOU players want to make sure they’re heard, too.

“Wherever we do it, we just make sure they can hear us,” Tunoa said. “Right before we do it, we just tell everybody that with the haka there has to be a switch. Once you flip that switch, that’s where the volume and energy comes from.”

For the likes of Tunoa and Maglente-Tonu, it’s not just about giving the Raiders a way to get the blood pumping and energy going one last time before kickoff. It’s also a way to show their teammates their culture and something they’ve been doing ever since they were kids in Hawaii.

“It has a lot of meaning,” said Maglente-Tonu, a native of Waikapu, Hawaii. “I’m Tongan and Hawaiian, and every league I played in for football in Hawaii, we learned some type of haka. Pop Warner, high school, even at my junior college (in Arizona) we did the haka.”

While they have to improvise where to do it for road games, there is no doubting that the corner of the end zone where the Raiders walk out is now designated haka space.

With players kneeling both in front and back of him pounding the ground with their right hand, Tunoa calls the words at full volume and gets a response from his teammates three different times.

Just a few feet in front of Tonua is Maglente-Tonu, the Raiders’ 6-foot-7, 310-pound starting tackle whose arms seem to go on forever and whose face is covered with eye black all the way down to his chin.

Intimidating — sure.

But there’s more to it than just looking tough.

“You’re calling down your ancestors from above asking them for help through whatever you’re doing,” Maglente-Tonu said. “You’re just bringing all the energy down into you and using that energy to spread.”

While the Raider Stadium crowd might not have been totally attune to the haka for SOU’s season opener against The College of Idaho, it was vastly different a week later.

The crowd knew what was coming, with the anticipatory roar hard to miss.

The same can be said when it comes to the reception from within the team.

It might have been new when Tunoa was teaching his teammates the words and actions, but a close-knit Raider team has embraced the haka as its own.

“I felt like everybody was feeding off the Polynesian players up front,” Tunoa said. “After we kept doing it all the time, they were doing it on their own and feeding off each other.”

“To see the rest of the team do it, it’s amazing,” Maglente-Tonu added. “Not only the Polynesian kids, but the kids from Oregon, Vegas, Washington, they all buy in.”

Does that mean the haka will be a trademark for a program that embraces tradition like Hall and the rest of the Raiders love to do?

“If somebody can pick up the words after, we’ll see,” Tunoa said with a grin.

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

(Oct. 10: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Masi Tunoa.)

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