Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 | 9:03 p.m.
Maybe it was the island music blasting throughout the stadium during timeouts on Friday. Or maybe it was glancing into the stands and seeing an environment that reminded him of home.
Whatever the case, Desert Pines High senior quarterback and Hawaii native Rjay Tagataese couldn’t have asked for a better night of football, helping the Jaguars outlast Orem of Utah 53-42 in the first game of the Polynesian Football Classic at Bishop Gorman.
Tagataese came to Las Vegas before his sophomore season from Hawaii. Naturally, he’s still a little homesick. But for a few hours during the classic, it was all smiles.
“This is a lifetime experience for me,” said Tagataese, who passed for four touchdowns. “To have this (event) over here is so special for me. I’m so grateful that of all of the teams in Nevada, we got picked to play in this.”
In the second quarter alone, Tagataese passed for a pair of touchdowns — to fellow Polynesian Jett Solomon — and rushed for a score in helping Desert Pines open what seemed to be a commanding lead.
But the Jaguars, who hadn’t played in three weeks because of positive COVID cases within the program, ran out of steam in the second half and Orem came storming back to bring the deficit to less than 10 points.
But the Desert Pines defense was opportunistic all evening in forcing six turnovers, including recovering a pair of fumbles inside its own 10-yard line. One recovery was on the goal line in the fourth quarter, instantly bringing momentum back to Desert Pines.
They scored a few plays later to cushion the lead. And, on the next Orem possession, Omar Ali intercepted a pass and took it deep into Orem territory to seal the win.
Desert Pines also recovered a pair of first-half kickoffs on squib kicks. All of their points came off Orem miscues.
“We made the plays when it counted to get us through,” Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez said.
Giving up 42 points isn’t ideal, but Rodriguez isn’t as concerned about the final result when considering the circumstances his program is facing.
After not playing in 2020 and having an interrupted start to this season because of the pandemic, the program’s younger players have very limited experience. Some were playing in just their second all-time game, which when considering Orem is a respected Utah power, speaks volumes about Desert Pines’ potential.
“If you knew how young we are on defense — freshmen and sophomores,” Rodriguez said. “They are huge up front and they just pounded us. … When you are young, everything is based off momentum and energy. Getting those breaks really carried us through.”
More important was giving his program’s many Polynesian players a great experience.
“The kids love this. You’ve got the music, the culture, the family support,” Rodriguez said. “This is a great event. We were very lucky to get in. We love being here.”
That’s especially true for Tagataese, who said “having all of the songs being played brought back some good memories. That was so nice. I miss that (Hawaiian) hospitality.”
Jovantae Barnes had a long touchdown reception and short scoring run for the Jaguars, and Malik Stinnett also had an interception.