Saturday’s Hawaii Bowl served as an extended homecoming for a handful of players on San Diego State’s roster, as the Aztecs featured six players with Hawaii ties.

For both teams, bowl week was filled with a fun balance of exploring Oahu and getting ready for Saturday’s contest at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex. Although Middle Tennessee ultimately prevailed 25-23 over the Aztecs, SDSU’s players still expressed gratitude following the game.

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In addition to the players on San Diego State’s roster, the Hawaii Bowl was also an extended return home for tight ends coach Savai’i Eselu, who joined SDSU’s staff in 2020. Prior to being hired by SDSU head coach Brady Hoke, Eselu was the head coach at Moanalua High School, his alma mater.

“Special is the best word to explain it,” Eselu told KHON2 following Saturday’s game. “We were here last year but under different (circumstances). Being able to stay here the whole week and enjoy home, it’s really surreal, really special. … It’s awesome being with coach Hoke and the Aztecs and keep going. It was good fun.”

Eselu, who played collegiately at Cal, joined Moanalua’s coaching staff shortly after graduating college in 2011. He was Na Menehune’s head coach from 2016 to 2019, where he compiled a 27-16 record, including 18-3 over his final two years. Following the Hawaii Bowl, he plans to stay home for a few weeks before returning for Year 4 in San Diego.

“It’s been fun. It’s been tough,” Eselu said of his college coaching experience. “I mean, you’re in the office at 6 in the morning, you leave at 9:30 at night. The real boss is my wife (Tatiana). She’s holding it down at home.”

Part of the reason why the Aztecs have a handful of players from Hawaii is Eselu, who has recruited and landed some of the island’s best. A prime example is freshman offensive lineman Laakea Kapoi, a Saint Louis alumnus who chose SDSU over scholarship offers from schools such as Michigan, Colorado, Oregon State, Arizona and Washington State among dozens of other offers, including a total of 12 teams that will be part of Power Five conferences in 2023.

“If you consider the Aztecs, first thing is toughness. Loyalty is a big thing with us,” Eselu said. “I think just staying true to your word in terms of representing Hawaii, representing your family, representing the Aztec creed. Just having the right attitude because it’s something special, not a lot of people understand. It’s something special coming from Hawaii and all the mainlanders that come through, they love it because of the family lifestyle, the respect factor, all of the stuff we embody here in the islands. It’s a challenge to be an Aztec. It’s a challenge to be a DI athlete, that’s for sure, but I also want to encourage all the boys going to pursue this level don’t worry about DI or bust — any free education is solid. Whatever can help elevate the state, we’ll do it.

“It’s something special to coach Hoke. We always tease him, he’s an honorary Poly because he loves Polynesians, he loves Hawaii. I mean, at some point, he’ll probably be living in Hawaii. Having guys like Alama (Uluave), the Tavai brothers, Seyddrick Lakalaka. Having them finish it here is something truly special. It’s truly rewarding. It’s awesome to see two, three, four local boys finish it off solid and back home.”