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HONOLULU – The free trip to Hawaii sounded like fun. That was the only reason a young Keith Bhonapha got on the plane in the first place.

When else, he thought at the time, was a teenager from Oakland going to make it to Honolulu? What Bhonapha didn’t realize was how transformative that visit to the islands would be for him while on a recruiting visit to the University of Hawaii in the late ’90s.

“Growing up in Oakland, you’re used to seeing buildings and concrete,” Bhonapha said last week. “Then you fly in to Hawaii and you see the beach and then you see the palm trees and you feel the weather and you realize, man, it’s very different.”

Bhonapha wound up playing defensive back for the Rainbow Warriors and earned his undergraduate degree there. “The best five years of my life,” he said.

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He got his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, spending three more years in Honolulu on June Jones’ Hawaii staff. Bhonapha is now in his first season as Washington’s running-backs coach and recruiting coordinator, and one of his priorities in the latter role is to reestablish the Huskies’ Hawaiian connections.

The Huskies have a successful history of recruiting Hawaii — from Bern Brostek to Ink Aleaga to Daniel Te’o-Nesheim to Hau’oli Kikaha — and Bhonapha arrived back in town Thursday with the hope that he can help continue that tradition. Of course, he’s here along with the rest of the team ahead of UW’s season opener against the Rainbow Warriors at Aloha Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network), but the 5½ -hour flight from Seattle serves as a two-birds, one-stone opportunity, too.

“It’s almost like a free recruiting trip,” Bhonapha said.

Friday-night football is big on the islands, and it’s a good bet Bhonapha will find a way to see at least one of the area’s top recruits play while he’s here.

Bhonapha estimated that, in his five years as an assistant at Boise State, he probably made 10 or 12 recruiting trips to Hawaii, plus additional visits to coach in summer camps. Those visits will continue, but Bhonapha knows they also have to be tactical.

Recruiting in Hawaii takes a significant investment in time and money, as the recruits themselves are well aware. Because of the remote location, some recruits who might otherwise attract interest from Pac-12 schools if they lived in, say, California end up getting overlooked in Hawaii.

Kikaha, UW’s star senior defensive end, was almost one of those players.

Kikaha played at Kahuku High School on the north end of Oahu, and he says the main reason he started to get scholarship offers was because he played alongside the state’s top recruit at the time, another defensive lineman named Kona Schwenke, who brought in recruiters from many of the top programs in college football.

Schwenke eventually signed with Notre Dame, but his presence helped Kikaha attract the attention of UW and Boise State.

“The better schools won’t come unless there’s some kid that they really want,” Kikaha said.

UW’s starting left tackle, senior Micah Hatchie, was highly sought after as a high-school offensive lineman at Waialua High on Oahu, with scholarship offers from more than half of the schools in the Pac-12. But he had also made a concerted effort since his freshman year at Waialua to attend camps — to both improve his game and put his name on the radar of college coaches.

“There are so many guys who can make it out here (in the Pac-12), but they don’t get the attention as much as people (on the mainland) do,” Hatchie said. “For island guys, the only attention they get is what they put on film or what they do at camps.”

Bhonapha is determined to find those recruits in Hawaii who have that hidden potential.

“We do want to get a foothold and get our paw print over there in Hawaii where we end up getting some of those kids,” Bhonapha said. “I’ve done my best to bridge that gap from the islands at Boise State. And hopefully we get that same thing going here at the University of Washington.”

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