High school basketball: Highland senior Ma'ata Epenisa blazes trail from Tonga to college

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 10:50 p.m. MST

Highland's Ma'ata Epenisa poses for a photo prior to practicing with her teammates Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, after school.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Ma’ata Epenisa wants to play college basketball.

Like hundreds of girls throughout Utah and across the country, the Highland senior and her coach, Jeremy Chatterton, have spent time this season reaching out and sending film to potential schools.

But Epenisa is not like most college-bound high school basketball players. Her story begins thousands of miles from the Salt Lake school. And the basketball portion of the puzzle — the piece that she now centers her day and her future on — was, until a year and a half ago, nonexistent.

The youngest of 10 children of her parents, Silia and Taunavau, Epenisa was born in Tonga, where she attended an LDS Church-sponsored school and lived with her family until her older brother, Ui Meihakau, died from leukemia. It was then, in October 2011, that Epenisa relocated with her mom and four siblings to Salt Lake City. Two siblings are now in Australia, two are in New Zealand, and her dad remains in Tonga.

While Epenisa was excited for the move, the change in language, hemispheres, friends and even the food posed challenges for her. It wasn’t until she was introduced to organized sports that Epenisa really began to find herself within her new school.

Six feet tall, athletic and an experienced runner in Tonga, Epenisa became involved with the Highland track and field team and found success in the throwing events. She now holds the school shot put record with a distance of 36 feet 4 inches.

The following school year, friends encouraged the talented but easygoing junior to try out for the volleyball team, a game she had previously only played recreationally.

“When I first got here, I had never known any teams except track and field,” she said. “So when my friends said, ‘You should try out. You’re so tall, maybe you can be in the middle,’ I just said, ‘I don’t know how, but that sounds good.’ ”

By that November, Epenisa had allowed another friend to convince her to try out for basketball, a game she had neither played nor even heard of.

“At first I thought, ‘it’s just dribbling, it’s easy,’ ” she said. “But then, there’s something called traveling (and) double-dribble. When I dribbled, I double-dribbled all the time. It was kind of confusing to me. At tryouts, all I could do was pass the ball.”

In spite of her lack of experience, Chatterton, in what was just his second year over the struggling program, could not pass up on Epenisa’s potential.

“She had absolutely no idea how to play,” he said. “But in talking with my assistants, it was the athleticism and the height. We thought, ‘let’s keep her this year and see if something can work out, see if she can get any better.’”

Epenisa did get better. Once she was explained the rules of the game and basketball terminology, she got a lot better.

“We would say, ‘OK Ma’ata, you’ve got to go block out.’ She had no idea what that meant,” Chatterton said. “Last year at the beginning of the season it was, ‘Rebound. Just go rebound.’ Once we explained what rebound meant — when a shot misses, you go get the ball — she was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah I can go do that.’”

The more she began to understand what was going on around her, the quicker she fell in love with the game. Each day, playing it became a little bit easier. Soon, Epenisa was given an opportunity to contribute with varsity minutes.

With two games remaining on last season’s schedule and a 1-18 record on the line, Chatterton’s assistant coach, Cazzie Brown, convinced him to put Epenisa on the floor when Highland visited Woods Cross.