VILLA PARK, Calif.—Cliff jumping, snorkeling, and remote living aren’t typically prerequisites for playing high school football, but they were for Villa Park on its season-opening trip to Hawaii.
The Spartans will face Orange in their Aug. 24 home opener at El Modena High carrying a 1–0 record after having spent nearly a week on Oahu earlier this month. Villa Park returned to California with a 37–13 victory over Damien of Honolulu on Aug. 11 and so much more in terms of experiences and memories.
“I feel like the trip overall was really good for us,” senior wide receiver Spencer Jarrell told The Epoch Times. “One of the nights, we had everyone come up and say something to the team. We would just give a speech, talk about bonding, talk about our experience in Hawaii. That probably brought us together the most because we had people give like five-minute-long speeches about how much this team means to them.”
Opening the season in Hawaii was the brainchild of Coach Dusan Ancich, who pulled off the dream road trip for a second time in his 15 seasons leading the Spartans. He and nine assistant coaches led a contingent of 78 players—no parents, no fans, no cheerleaders, no band, only “the guys.”
Unlike Edison-Huntington Beach, which had its scheduled two-game trip to Maui canceled because of wildfires that ravaged that island, Villa Park was fortunate to be on Oahu, where there was no impact from the fires.
The Spartans stayed—as many as 16 players and one coach in a room—at Camp Erdman, a YMCA-run outpost outside Honolulu that is well-known among Hawaiian students. Other than a few workers, food preparers, and so forth, there was no one else.
Villa Park High School football team at practice during its season-opening trip in Oahu, Hawaii, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Courtesy of Dusan Ancich via Instagram/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
“It’s on the North Shore, very secluded,” Mr. Ancich told The Epoch Times. “You have to walk a little over a mile to see anybody else. Every day we had a practice and an excursion, and then we had kind of our evening activities, which were team-bonding things.”
While Villa Park’s booster club dealt with the financial aspects of the trip, Mr. Ancich planned the itinerary, right down to the minute. He also shouldered the ultimate responsibility for everyone’s safety, which was no small feat.
Outings included hiking, bridge jumping, paddle-boarding, and kayaking, while things such as skits, trivia contests, and memorization of facts about teammates filled the later hours.
“My favorite excursion was probably the cliff jumping,” senior tailback and outside linebacker Carter Christie told The Epoch Times. “When you’re walking up to the rocks, it doesn’t look that high. But then when you get up there, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ You’re way up there. Once you get to the top, you can’t back down at that point. All your coaches and teammates are cheering you on—you gotta jump then.”
Villa Park High School football team's tailback and outside linebacker Carter Christie (12) poses for a group photo with fellow running backs during a season-opening trip in Oahu, Hawaii, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Dusan Ancich via Instagram/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Unlike under ordinary circumstances at home, there was no going home to Mom and Dad, no hanging out with non-football friends, but rather the constant proximity of teammates.
“Just being together,” Christie said. “Every day we’re together at practice, but that’s different than living together for a week. You get to know the guys better. … I got to know a lot more of the coaches a lot better than I did before. And now I feel closer to everybody.”
Assistant coach Todd Lyght, a former Notre Dame and NFL cornerback who won a Super Bowl championship with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, wowed Jarrell and everyone else with an impressive “front flip off the rocks.”
Perhaps remarkably, the players didn’t even balk at what Mr. Ancich called “the highlight of the trip,” a rule forbidding cell phones for all but a couple of brief periods during visits to a nearby town.
The point of the exercise, one Mr. Ancich highly recommends, was to increase communication and “presence.”
“I’m on my phone a lot. I feel like most of us are,” Jarrell said. “The first day, it was kind of weird, but we had something going on pretty much every minute. I honestly stopped thinking about it. I mean, it’s Hawaii. It was scenic, and the excursions we did were incredible. I think once everyone kind of settled into it, there wasn’t any problem.”
Villa Park High School football team's Spencer Jarrell (6) poses for a group photo with fellow wide receivers during a season-opening trip in Oahu, Hawaii, on Aug. 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Dusan Ancich via Instagram/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
The Spartans also managed to strike a delicate balance between having fun and getting ready to play their game.
“That’s kind of the trick of it, because you want the kids to have the best time half the day, and then you want them to be locked in and focused the other half,” Mr. Ancich said. “Our whole goal was to win the football game, and our other goal was to give everyone the opportunity to play at least one play.”
Except for one backup kicker, Villa Park accomplished the latter objective. And after pocketing the victory, the Spartans joined with their opponents to share a Hawaiian meal prepared by Damien’s parents and booster-club members.
“The food was incredible,” Jarrell said. “They were really hospitable, the players themselves. I didn’t expect them to be as nice as they were. … They genuinely seemed just happy to have us.”
Villa Park High School football teammates kayaking and paddle-boarding during its season-opening trip in Oahu, Hawaii, on Aug. 10, 2023. (Courtesy of Dusan Ancich via Instagram/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
The goal now, Mr. Ancich said, will be to repeat such a trip often enough that every player who spends four years in Villa Park’s program will have an opportunity to participate.
“We had kids that had been to Hawaii 10 times, and we had kids that had never been on a plane,” he said. “Some of them had never been in the ocean. Some of them had never snorkeled. I would say 90 percent had never snorkeled in water like that.
“We always stressed it was going to be a life experience. I deep down believe they will remember it for the rest of their lives.”
The Villa Park High School football team waiting at the airport before returning to California after its season-opening trip to Hawaii, on Aug. 12, 2023. (Courtesy of Dusan Ancich via Instagram/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)