Huskies' Tupuola-Fetui remains optimistic amid most uncertain of seasons

Zion Tupuola-Fetui had hoped for good news in regards to the University of Washington's scheduled Pac-12 football game against rival Oregon Saturday.

But despite the optimism of the sophomore outside linebacker and 2018 Pearl City graduate, it was announced on Thursday that the game between the Huskies (3-1) and Ducks (3-2) in Eugene would be canceled due increased positive cases of COVID-19 in Washington's football program.

The Pac-12 and the school released a joint announcement in a written statement.

"After consultation with Washington, the Pac-12 Conference announced the game involving Washington at Oregon scheduled for Saturday, December 12 has been cancelled. This decision was made under the Pac-12's football game cancellation policy due to Washington not having the minimum number of scholarship student-athletes available for the game due to to a number of positive football student-athlete COVID-19 cases and resulting isolation of additional football student-athletes under contract tracing protocols."

The Seattle Times, which first reported the news of the cancellation, detailed that the Huskies are "well below" the Pac-12's minimum of 53 scholarship players, including seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen among others.

The Conference's statement went on to note that the game will be declared a no contest, which means it will be only the fifth season in the last 100 years that the rivals will not play each other. The last time they did not face-off was in 2001.

Tupuola-Fetui is well-aware of the storied rivalry — Washington and Oregon have had 112 meetings since their first on Dec. 1, 1900 — especially the more recent history. Since he's joined the team three years ago, Tupuola-Fetui and the Huskies have yet to record a win over the Ducks.

Oregon pulled out a 30-27 win in overtime in the 2018 clash in Eugene (although Tupuola-Fetui redshirted that season and did not play in the game). A year ago the Ducks rallied to a 35-31 win in Seattle and spoiled Washington's homecoming in the process.

"We always want to go out on the field and put our best game out and come out with a win, but it's a very rich rivalry with Washington and Oregon, so there's always some extra juice for these games," Tupuola-Fetui said in a phone interview Wednesday — about 24 hours before news broke of the cancellation.

Although he did not record any statistics in the game, Tupuola-Fetui did get to play in the Oregon game last season. He was hoping to make a bigger impact this time around against the Ducks, who also recruited Tupuola-Fetui out of Pearl City. He signed with Washington over scholarship offers from Cal, Nevada, Vanderbilt, Hawaii, Oregon State and, of course, Oregon.

"All of that is just fuel to the fire, so I just want to go out there and show them what Husky football is about," Tupuola-Fetui said.

That will have to wait. For how long? That's anybody's guess at this point.

"I'm so disappointed for everyone involved here. Every year our student-athletes, coaches, staff and Husky Nation circle this game on our calendar and so look forward to this amazing rivalry," Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen wrote in her statement.

She went on, "The student-athletes from both schools have worked so hard, and I'm just really disheartened we are (at) this point where we are unable to play due to our COVID-19 positives within the program, but we will always put the health and well-being of our students, coaches and staff as our greatest priority when making decisions. We will continue to work in collaboration with our medical professionals as they advise us on how to best move forward."

Tupuola-Fetui said the players woke up Wednesday to team trainers informing them not to come into the facility that day as all team-related activities were put on pause. Instead, they conducted meetings via zoom and at the time, still held out hope that the game would be played.

"Right now the game is still set to go on, so we're hoping to practice later in the week and be able to go down to Eugene," said Tupuola-Fetui, who alluded to the Huskies' two prior COVID-affected games already this season.

Washington's scheduled opener at California on Nov. 7 was canceled because of high case numbers within the Bears' program. Three weeks later, it saw the cancellation of the Apple Cup due to an outbreak among Washington State's team. The Pac-12 made a last-minute change to the schedule that week that allowed Washington to host Utah, which had its originally-scheduled contest against Arizona State canceled.

"This is our first time being the sick team, so we know that it's possible for you to get positive tests and still play, so that's what we're trying to do," Tupuola-Fetui said.

As it stands, Washington sits atop the Pac-12 North standings and would represent the Division in next Friday's conference championship game. But — and there is a big ‘but' — all of that can change by the end of this weekend. The possibility remains that if not enough conference games are played this weekend and the average number of games played falls below 4.33 per team, the Huskies could be left on the outside looking in. Should that scenario take place, the North and South divisions would be eliminated and USC (4-0) and Colorado (3-0) would meet in the Pac-12 championship game.

Even if the average number of games is met and Washington is designated as the North representative for the title game, it may not meet the minimum threshold of 53 scholarship players needed to play.

Despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the situation — and the season as a whole — Tupuola-Fetui has not let it keep him down.

"I guess this year has kind of put ‘what you want' in perspective. With football I had the option to opt out and I chose to play once everything got figured out and with school, it's a priority, so for us to still be able to make it work — we're one of the schools that aren't doing in-person classes — just lets me know that I can do what I set my mind to, whether it be school, whether it be football, anything in life and even though it might be harder now than it used to be, I can still find a way to do it; it's just a test of mental fortitude," Tupuola-Fetui said.

And find a way he did. When the Huskies have played, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Tupuola-Fetui has been a menacing force more often than not.

After the Cal cancellation, Washington opened the year against Oregon State, which marked the first career start for Tupuola-Fetui.

The stats seemed to indicate that he was ready: four solo tackles and two strip-sacks (sack and forced fumble) in a 27-21 Washington win. Tupuola-Fetui was named Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the week for his efforts. In a 44-27 victory over Arizona the following week, he registered two more sacks, another forced fumble and three total solo tackles to earn the honor for a second straight week.

Tupuola-Fetui followed that up the very next week with his third straight Pac-12 D-lineman of the Week award after he notched three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery (which he returned 29 yards) and six total tackles in a 24-21 win over Utah. He was also named National Defensive Player of the Week by Athlon Sports.

After the win over the Utes, Washington coach Jimmy Lake said that coming into the season he thought Tupuola-Fetui — the 2017 All-Hawaii Division II Defensive Player of the Year while at Pearl City — was poised for a breakout year given his solid play at the tail end of the 2019 season. Still, he didn't expect this kind of a start to the year for the player nicknamed "ZTF."

And neither did Tupuola-Fetui, for that matter.

"I mean, I can't say that I would have expected what I've done so far, but I knew that I had the capabilities to go out there and play. At the end of last season everything kind of started clicking for me and it was becoming more instinctual — I could feel it — and I knew that if I kept my head down and went to work that my opportunity would come," he explained.

However, the Huskies were handed their first loss last weekend by Stanford, 31-26, and Tupuola-Fetui was largely negated as he did not record any statistics — which several Cardinal players pointed out after the fact as being a pivotal part of the result.

But unlike its win over Utah — in which Washington scored 24 unanswered points to come back from a 21-point deficit — the Huskies' comeback attempt fell short Saturday. They trailed Stanford, 24-3 and 31-0, and scored a string of 23 straight points, but could get no closer. The optimist in Tupuola-Fetui finds the silver lining in the loss.

"I just think it shows that ‘no-quit attitude' on this team. Going down 21 is a very hard score to look at, but the coaches aren't fazed and the players just want to go back on the field and show them what we're made of," Tupuola-Fetui said. "What I think it says is that if we put in a full game of work, that we can definitely be one of the better teams, we just have to go out there and do it. If you look at the second halves of both games, if we're able to do that for two halves, it's a different story, definitely."

If Tupuola-Fetui sounds like a glass-half-full kind of guy, it's probably got at least a little bit to do with his time at Pearl City, where he starred on both the football and boys volleyball teams. Tupuola-Fetui reflected upon his tenure as a Charger.

"My coaches always instilled in me the core values that I carry dear to myself today, but just their belief in me has taken me father than anything else. Whether it was football or volleyball, all of my coaches always wanted the best for me," he said. "And I think being from one of the smaller high schools definitely helped me to develop that work ethic. That's one of the things that helps me, that motivates me and drives me, because when you talk about Hawaii (high school) football, I'm not really supposed to be here, so I've got this opportunity and I'm going to run with it as far as I can."

Tupuola-Fetui specifically pointed out math teacher and assistant football coach Daphne "Kaji" Okunaga as a driving force in his development as an overall student-athlete.

"Ms. Kaji, she's the person that kept us all down to Earth when it could have gotten to our heads, especially in high school culture," said Tupuola-Fetui, who is majoring in English and hopes to one day become a sports broadcaster.

"There's a really good support network at Pearl City and outside of my family, that is really the reason for where I am today, so I'm just extremely grateful for what they've done for me in my growth, especially when I was still in high school, because I easily could have been an airhead and just full of myself, but them doing that is definitely the reason that I am the person I am today and in the position I am today," he stated.

One memory that Tupuola-Fetui holds close to his heart is one of the two games he appeared in during his redshirt year. The game happened to be the Rose Bowl and the opponent? Ohio State.

"The Granddaddy of Them All," Tupuola-Fetui recalled. "That was special. I learned a lot about myself that game, especially playing against a good team, one of the teams that comes out every year as one of the top dogs, so it was a good experience, definitely."

Just four games into his redshirt sophomore year, Tupuola-Fetui certainly appears on the right track for success on an even grander stage in the not so distant future, but that doesn't mean he's lost perspective of where here came from. After all, he's got half a dozen other local boys who will be quick to remind him of just that.

Washington's roster also includes senior wide receiver Fatu Sua-Godinet (Kamehameha '16), sophomore place kicker Tim Horn (Punahou '19), redshirt freshman offensive lineman Julius Buelow (Kapolei '19), redshirt freshman linebacker Miki Ah You (Kahuku '19), redshirt freshman defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele (Saint Louis '19) and freshman defensive back Meki Pei (Iolani '20).

"It's funny, when I came here we only had Fatu, but now we have a pretty healthy amount of Hawaii guys and we've actually been able to bring that culture up here a little bit. It's fun to know that we all kind of want to put on for the island, so just that extra juice, extra motivation that we have to push for each other and whenever a Hawaii boy gets an opportunity over here, there's always a little celebration within for me and I know it's the same for them, too, where we're just happy for each other; it's a real strong bond being from Hawaii," Tupuola-Fetui expressed.

Along those lines, Tupuola-Fetui couldn't help but empathize for the high school football players in Hawaii, whose prospects for a season are seemingly less likely as each month passes by.

"I just want to tell all the football players back home to stay strong and hope for the best and that I'm rooting for them," he said. "I know how unfortunate it is for the seniors to not have a season, but I'm holding out hope for them … hard times, but stronger people."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].



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