The End Of A Fierce Rivalry

With BYU-Hawaiʻi closing athletics program, what does this means for Vulcans?

Sports Writer Trixie Croad
Photo Courtesy of Greg Zukeran

Greg Zukeran and brother Grant after last Vulcan tennis match at BYU-Hawaiʻi

Brigham Young University-Hawaiʻi - located in Laie, on the North Shore of O‘ahu - is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is one of the few other four- year colleges in the state of Hawaiʻi in the PacWest Athletic Conference, along with UH Hilo, Chaminade, and Hawaiʻi Pacific University.

Shortly after its establishment in 1955, BYU-Hawaiʻi launched the seasiders athletic program. Over the coming decades, this program would become a force to be reckoned with, one of its main rivals being our own UH Hilo Vulcans. Decades of fierce competition will come to an end however, when the BYU-Hawaiʻi seasiders close their doors for good in May of this year. In 2014, President Steven Wheelwright and the Board of Trustees made the decision to cut the athletics program to refocus the budget on recruiting international students to the university from Asia and the Pacific. The goal was to increase enrollment from 2,500 to 3,200 students.

The decision came as a shock to many. “Student athletes and the staff are heartbroken. It’s a unique university with unique morals and unique opportunities, we don't play on Sundays, there's no drinking there’s no smoking. It's a really unique campus environment.” explains current athletic director Brad Jones. He says that while a shock, this course of action was not unprecedented “they did the same thing at BYU-Idaho a number of years ago,” Jones explains.

The decision was immediately met with opposition from the Seasider community. Then athletic director Ken Wagner, with help from alumni, was able to fundraise and propose a $30million endowment for the program but were turned down by the board. The fight to save the athletic program has been unsuccessful and the seasider community is now getting ready to close up shop, while trying to stay positive. “There were a lot of people that were hoping that things might be reconciled but the reality is now setting in….It’s really affecting a lot of lives. Its frustrating but we move on right?. You can’t sit around and mope about it you just move on to new chapters, new experiences are available to everybody. We want to close this year out in a classy way and give our student athletes a lot of support, and they’re all taking pride in finishing and competing strongly for this last and final season for BYUH athletics,” Jones said.

Current Seasider student athletes - approximately 180 from 11 different teams - are now facing the challenge of what to do next. “We have a mix” Jones says, “some are going to schools in the PacWest, some to Division I universities, and we have a few who are just going to finish up at BYUH and not play sports”

For their part, the NCAA has waived the rule that says students transferring within their own conference have to sit out a year of athletics, meaning seasiders are free to transfer to other PacWest schools, including UH Hilo, and get straight back into playing their sport. Their scholarships, however, will end with the athletic program. “We’re disappointed but we’re moving on, and if we can help other PacWest teams with some quality students that’s great,” Jones said.

It is not just the community at BYU-Hawaiʻi that will be affected by this change, UH Hilo and the entire PacWest conference will see the effects of losing one of the most dominant programs. UH Hilo athletic director Pat Guillen says that our conference is evolving in more ways than one this coming year. Along with BYU-Hawaiʻi, California Baptist and Dixie State are also leaving the conference, moving elsewhere, while Biola University will be joining the PacWest for the 2017/2018 season. Guillen is sad about the news, but besides the sentimental loss, says there shouldn’t be any significant tangible negative effects on the Vulcans. “The changes hurt us in the sense that scheduling was a little bit easier with that fourth Hawaiʻi school, but in a sense it also provides us with a little bit more flexibility with the ability to schedule more non conference games,” Guillen said.

The seasiders athletics program has excelled over the past few decades, racking up over 20 national titles and hundreds of all americans. Men’s Basketball and Volleyball have been the program’s flagship sports since its inception, and more recently, tennis has joined their success, the women’s side winning an impressive 7 national titles in the last 20 years. The Vulcan tennis teams played in Laie for the last time earlier this month.

Vulcans Men’s Tennis sophomore Greg Zukeran was especially sentimental about this final playoff, as his brother is an alumnus of the BYU-Hawaiʻi tennis program. Prior to the final match-up, Zukeran said, “knowing that this may be the last time, I am determined to give everything I have left. I want it to be one of the best matches I play. If we could finally snag a win against this college, that would be just amazing for us at UH Hilo. No matter the outcome, I am glad that I was able to compete with them the past couple years.” Unfortunately, the Vulcans fell a narrow 5 to 4 against the Seasiders, Zukeran losing his match at No. 3 singles in a tight three setter.

The roots of this rivalry, however, stem far deeper and wider than the Zukeran brothers and even the tennis program at either school. The competitive but respectful relationship between these two programs dates back to the days of Vulcans Men’s Basketball coach Jimmy Yagi, almost 50 years ago. Yagi was assistant coach when the program was founded in 1969, and was head coach for 12 years between 1973 and 1985.

Men’s basketball was the first sport for both schools and both programs enjoyed national success, particularly throughout the 1980s and 90s. Coach Yagi has many stories to tell about epic matchups between himself and BYU-Hawaiʻi coach Ted Chidester, remembering the last match before each of them retired in 1985, Yagi says it was so important to Chidester to beat the Vulcans “they brought the head of the mormon church from Utah and he gave a speech before the game. That blew me away,” Yagi said.

The Vulcans ended up winning the match in an epic battle by just a few points in overtime play. Yagi portrays not only fierce rivalry but strong solidarity between the two programs over the years, especially in times of adversity. When both schools were kicked out of the NAIA District 2 conference Yagi says, “We had to work together to get schools to come out to Hawai‘i, we had to share the costs and coordinate our schedules…[BYU-Hawaiʻi] were great competitors and they did a lot of things with class, it wasn’t always the same with other schools but they were a class act.”

Shortly after basketball took off, both schools introduced women’s volleyball, which added another branch to the fierce rivalry. Big Island native Wilfred Navalta coached the Seasiders from 1985 all the way until 2012, matching up against legendary Vulcans coach Sharon Peterson for a large chunk of this time. “Whenever we came to Hilo, the gymnasium was packed” Navalta remembers.

Navalta’s team won an unbelievable 11 national titles between 1986 and 2002, and as he remembers, “our rivalry was so fierce because Hilo was always there competing for the same national titles.” he says. Navalta, who has moved back to the Big Island, is still heavily involved in Volleyball here and says he was very disappointed to hear about BYU Hawaiʻi dropping their athletics program, and thinks it will really hurt volleyball on the Big Island. “We will miss being able to promote volleyball on the Big Island through the fierce competition of BYU-Hawaii and Hilo, not only for the high schools and club teams, but for those who remember the rivalry.” Navalta said.