SURPRISE – In what might have been their last chance to be seen by college scouts, seniors from Arizona and California walked onto the football field for their final game as high schoolers.
The first “Offertunity Bowl” took place in Surprise Jan. 27, at the campus of Ottawa University – Arizona. A team of Arizona high school seniors played a team of California high school seniors, with players from both sides looking to get last-minute recruiting exposure before national signing day on Feb. 7.
The event was put on by the AIGA Foundation, a nonprofit that helps high school students get scholarships in sports. The organization has its roots in Polynesia, hosting different events and games in the mainland U.S., Hawaii and American Samoa. While they work with young athletes from all walks of life, mostly from California, their biggest event, the Polynesian All-American Bowl, focuses on the best Polynesian high school players in the U.S. and American Samoa. The organization has produced three games so far as part of its 2024 Bowl series, and the “Offertunity Bowl” was the first in Arizona.
“We’ve been doing this for about 25 years now,” Isaac Shipp, director of operations for the AIGA Foundation, said. “We hosted the game originally in California, and we wanted to bring it out here.”
While the games hosted by the AIGA Foundation have featured future NFL players like Juju Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne, the organization wanted to extend its mission outside of California. So they reached out to Jim Camarillo, former defensive coordinator at Saguaro High School. Camarillo put together the Arizona team, and the AIGA Foundation brought a team they worked with in California. After months of planning, the Offertunity Bowl finally came together.
“I was approached by the California team,” Camarillo said. “And it’s the Polynesian bowl guys that have put bowl games on for years. I was blessed that they reached out to me … (they said) ‘Hey, we’d like to have a game out in Arizona and bring our California team out to play you guys.’ So we got in conversations about how we could do it, and it’s been months, and here you are.”
As for the game itself, it went down to the wire. Arizona jumped out to a big lead early, leading 21-6 at the half. However, a furious comeback from California in the second half pulled the game within two points. But with the score 24-22, Saguaro High School quarterback Mason Bray threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Tempe High School wide receiver Kamron Jackson, which would ultimately be the decider as Arizona won the game 31-30. Bray finished with three touchdown passes and took home the game’s MVP trophy.
“I don’t really know what college is looking like right now football-wise,” Bray said. “So it was just good putting the pads on and having a team, and just the camaraderie of everything. I just loved it.”
In terms of being selected for the game, Bray and his teammates were nominated by their coaches. They got to practice for about two weeks before the game, according to Bray’s Arizona teammate and Northwest Christian School quarterback Evan Tarasenko. And while it takes time to develop chemistry with teammates, Tarasenko said that he felt the team came together well.
“There’s a lot of guys in this game that have gone kind of under the radar in the recruiting process,” Tarasenko said. “So it’s great for all of us to come out here and to prove ourselves. It’s super cool to have the opportunity to come and play with a lot of guys from around the state and being able to showcase what you worked for and your craft at another level.”
The game was hosted by Ottawa University – Arizona, and its football coach Mike Nesbitt was happy to be front and center of the unusual event. Not only did it allow him to promote his school’s football program, but it also gave him a special chance to get an extra look at some of the high school seniors in the game. And, of course, he said he wanted to give the players one last opportunity to be seen by potential recruiters.
“Anytime you can get a good quality product like some good football players out here tonight, it’s always fun,” Nesbitt said. “(Hopefully) we can always be involved in some form or fashion.”
The future looks bright for the “Offertunity Bowl,” and both Shipp and Camarillo felt the game was a success, with the stands nearly full as people came in support of the players and the game. So, it should be no surprise that both sides are already looking towards the next “Offertunity Bowl.”
“We want to see it be bigger,” Shipp said. “We’re probably going to focus more on Arizona … because there’s a lot more kids that are pretty talented that probably didn’t get the opportunity to play in this. So we want to open up the doors so that we can have a staff on both sides representing Arizona.”
“Aiga” means family in Samoan, and the members of the organization take that to heart with the way they operate. For example, Shipp is cousins with the organization’s founder, George Malauulu. And many of the foundation’s former players come back and work with the organization once their playing career is over. The AIGA Foundation’s family-centric approach shows in the care and the time it devotes to young athletes.
“[A]t the end of the day it’s about the kids,” Shipp said. “We’re looking for kids that nobody knows about, we want to help the kids that don’t have the stars. It’s about helping the kids get another opportunity to be seen.”