Edwardsville senior and All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa racked up two sacks, five tackles and two forced fumbles Saturday to win Defensive Most Valuable Player honors at the inaugural Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii.
Epenesa’s team, Team Ronnie Stanley, defeated Team Marcus Mariota 9-7 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. Epenesa will sign with the Iowa Hawkeyes on Feb. 1.
An estimated 75 percent of the players in the game had Polynesian roots, including Epenesa. Epenesa’s father, former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa, grew up in American Samoa.
The entire Epenesa family made the trip to Hawaii from their home in Glen Carbon, including A.J. Epenesa’s parents, sister and two brothers. Many other relatives from Hawaii and elsewhere were on hand to watch the game.
“It’s a huge honor to come back to your roots, learn about your culture and learn about your people,” Epenesa recently told USA Today. “You realize there is a bigger picture than yourself and to see the land as itself. Being on this island is a big opportunity for a lot of these guys and me especially, growing up in the Midwest. To be able to take in everybody and everything has been huge.”
Epenesa is the second Southwestern Conference player to be named an MVP of a post-season showcase game. East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas was the MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game played Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla. Thomas scored two touchdowns to help his squad to a 24-21 win, and his 148 receiving yards broke the game record previously owned by former Flyers receiver Terry Hawthorne.
Epenesa also played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.
Edwardsville All-Area kicker and University of Memphis recruit Riley Patterson played in the Blue-Gray All-American Bowl on Saturday in Oakland, Calif. Patterson, who played for the Blue team, was 6-for-9 on field goals this season for the Tigers and booted 43 extra points.