Sacred Hearts Academy  |   Honolulu, Hawaii

Ka Leo

Sacred Hearts Academy  |   Honolulu, Hawaii

Ka Leo

Sacred Hearts Academy  |   Honolulu, Hawaii

Ka Leo

Wong makes history as first Lancer football athlete

Senior Jenica Wong represents PAC-5’s football team. Her coaches say her dedication and hard work earned her playing time this season. Photo by Chelstine Tavares.

Senior Jenica Wong squares up at the 30-yard-line. With sweat beading down the back of her neck and her pony tail tucked into her helmet, Wong looks for an opening in the sea of orange and white jerseys and feels the pressure; not from the bulky shoulder pads she’s wearing but rather from the overwhelming thought of being the first Sacred Hearts Academy student to play football. 

“The first actual game I played…we were versing Saint Louis School (SLS) and up by 10 points,” said Wong, representing the all-girls Catholic school in Honolulu. “Toward the end of the game, the special team’s coach grabbed me by the collar and told me, ‘hit somebody,’ and I went with that in mind.”

“I wasn’t as experienced as the rest of the team, but I wanted to at least ‘create a statement,’ or have a positive performance,” Wong said. 

While she didn’t make any plays that day, PAC-5 won the game against SLS, with a score of 10-0.

This was not only a win for PAC-5 but for the stigma that ‘girls don’t belong’ or ‘girls can’t play,’” the 17-year-old said about the October game.

‘She’s not special’

From grueling bear crawls in the mud to challenging up-down drills, Wong said she didn’t expect any special treatment on the team.

Varsity Head Coach Kena Heffernan agrees.

“The biggest compliment I could give Jenica is… she’s not special,” he said. “She didn’t do any girl push ups… she was held to the same standards as everybody else.”

Wong warms up with drills up and down the Roosevelt High School field before her team’s game against Kaimuki High School. She played defensive back and wide receiver. Photo courtesy of Shutter Proof 808.

While she grew up occasionally playing football with neighbors and with classmates in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (JROTC), she never experienced a big football culture. 

Typically, female football players will be the kicker of a team, Sacred Hearts Academy Athletic Director Ryan Hogue said. Wong thought she might become a placeholder, the individual who catches the ball from the snapper and sets it for the kicker. However, at 5’6” and 130 lbs., Wong found herself in the mix of games, playing defensive back and wide receiver. 

“We weren’t going to put her on the field if we didn’t feel it wasn’t safe enough for her,” Heffernan said. “So the times that she was able to get on there were opportunities that she (earned).”

Football is nationally recognized as a co-educational sport but is still predominantly male, according to Interscholastic League of Honolulu (ILH)’s Assistant Executive Director Georges Gilbert.

As Wong entered the season as a fresh starter, she understood the struggle it would be to bond with a team mostly consisting of males. But the most challenging of it all was earning acceptance to be on the field. 

“There were some kids in the stands…saying stuff like, ‘Shouldn’t you be a water girl?’ or ‘Why are you on the field?’” she said. “I did feel alienated and hurt; it stuck with me for a while, which is why I didn’t want to make (it a) big deal. But as I came to terms with the reality, (I realized) there will always be people who will judge. It doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t let them impact your life.”

Wong, #85, huddles with her team and Coach Heffernan. With no official football experience, Wong decided to play football the summer before her senior year. Photo courtesy of Shutter Proof 808.

Wong’s presence at her first PAC-5 practice did not seem to affect the other players since there was already another female on the team. Ciara Barro was a freshman from the University Laboratory School.

And with the little attention towards her joining the team, she said everyone “co-existed in peace.”

“I do at times remember being discouraged because I would not be as fast or strong as the guys,” Wong said. “As I went toward the Farrington football field for the first practice, I did feel a bit nervous or insecure…I told (my dad that) we should leave because there were already a lot of people…which was intimidating.”

It took the simplest words from her father, “If it doesn’t work out, we at least tried,” to encourage them to follow through with the commitment.

“It took a bit for her to realize that she deserved to be on the team,” Heffernan said. “The more she practiced (and) tackled the boys, (the more football) became part of her.”

‘Change of heart’ 

Wong is involved in year-round activities. Throughout her time at the Academy, she has participated in band, dance, softball, volleyball, basketball and student council. These responsibilities were the spark needed in making her a reliable candidate for PAC-5.

The summer before her senior year, Wong had a “change of heart,” as she calls it, and asked athletic director Hogue if she could instead join PAC-5’s football team. The team consists of athletes from independent schools.

The more she practiced (and) tackled the boys, (the more football) became part of her.

— Kena Heffernan, PAC-5 Varsity Football Coach

Hogue shared how he was “a little shocked.” With the season already starting, he explained to her the importance of being “in condition and understanding equipment for safety reasons.” 

And while other Academy students have asked him in past years, he said what made Wong different was her “track record of (being) an accountable athlete in other sports.”

“She was a valued member of the team, who took her role seriously, and was committed to the whole season,” he said. 

Being the Academy’s first female football player was a “pleasant surprise” for Wong, who said, “At first, I was a bit embarrassed, since I was worried about judgment.” However, she later grew her confidence, with the help of positive reinforcements from family and friends. Her reaction shifted to pride in representing the school.

Females in football

Nationally, there are many female athletes who have also made their debut on the football field. 

Last year, Shenandoah University’s Haley Van Voorhis became the first female on the football team to play as a safety. The position prevents ball carriers, or those who have the ball in their hand, from getting past them.

In Hawaii, the Genesis Diamonds 10U girls flag football team came home with the National Football League Flag Championship title. They competed against the boys, as an all-female team at the Las Vegas event. 

PAC-5’s Heffernan’s is supportive of girls playing football, as long as they know that “there are no gifts,” he said.

“I’m just being straight up,” he said. “I mentioned before there are no girl push ups, and all that other stuff, because it’s demeaning. We have a lot of amazing athletes, regardless of gender, and I advocate for anyone who has an interest to step out on the field.” 

ILH’s Gilbert shares that he did not notice a rise in female football players over the years. Heffernan agreed and said that he “doesn’t expect there to be a huge uptick in females joining football, but (he) welcomes it.” 

“It took a lot of courage for Jenica to put herself out there, where maybe many people expected her to fail,” Heffernan said.

(Far right) Wong with PAC-5 teammates before a game. (Left to right) University Laboratory School’s (UH Lab) Avari Zion-Branch, Le Jardin’s Espn “Keaka” Bennett, UH Lab’s Nainoa French, Maryknoll School’s Carter Lapitan and UH Lab’s Ciara “Cici” Barro. While she has faced criticism from spectators, she and her male teammates “coexisted in peace,” she said. Photo courtesy of Shutter Proof 808.

While Wong is still unsure of where she will attend college, collegiate football most likely won’t be on her radar. But will instead participate in intramural football. 

The PAC-5 Wolfpack had a successful season, coaches say. This season, they made it to the semi-finals for the first time since 2018. 

Reflecting upon the season, Wong has experienced everything from playing football to going in head first. 

“I wanted to live with no regrets, so my advice to all would be, if you are interested in something, it doesn’t hurt to check it out with an open mind. What is there to lose?” 

About the Contributor
Chelstine Tavares
Chelstine Tavares, Reporter
Chelstine is a first-year Journalism student and a senior attending the Academy. This year in Journalism, she hopes to learn the perspectives of our society that affects our school community. She also hopes to bring uplifting, humorous content to the many students who need a smile! Chelstine usually spends her free time reading, writing, playing video games, telling jokes, or texting friends. A fun fact about Chelstine is that she would consider herself as your authentic, classic 2024 class clown!
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  • RobertApr 13, 2024 at 8:23 am