I feel like I was just raised to win. Losing wasn’t really an option for me. But there is a championship mentality, which to me means going 100 percent for each other. —Tawnee Luafalemana
SALT LAKE CITY — Tawnee Luafalemana only has to look at her father in the stands to be reminded that there is always room for improvement.
“I’ll just see him in the stands, and he’ll be like, ‘Why didn’t you get 30 kills?’” she said laughing. “It’s never enough for him. There is always a little bit more. It’s not negative. It’s super motivating.”
Luafalemana said her competitive drive comes from her father, Tony. She said his influence has made her realize that excellence isn’t determined solely by the scoreboard.
Tony Luafalemana said he was hard on Tawnee, the fifth of his seven kids, because she had athletic ability, but lacked specific volleyball skills.
"I told her, hard work breeds talent after talent stops working," he said. "She had such jumping ability. She put in a lot of time and effort. ...She's come a long way."
He said her path to Utah has been more difficult than it needed to be, but he's proud of how she became one of the few to make it to a ranked program. He said she chose Utah over Kansas because she thought she could have an impact on the Pac-12 program.
"I'm so proud of what she's done," he said. "She's just a real positive person. I think that's what she brings to the table."
“I feel like I was just raised to win,” she said. “Losing wasn’t really an option for me. But there is a championship mentality, which to me means going 100 percent for each other.”
The senior middle hitter has bolstered the Utah volleyball team in a number of ways since she arrived as a Junior College transfer from College of Southern Idaho two years ago.
“The first thing you see is the physical attributes,” said Utah head coach Beth Launiere. “She’s fast and quick and dynamic. She had kind of an energy on the court that you saw, but you’re still not sure, ‘Is that who that person is?’ As we got to know her during the recruiting process, we were just very happy to see that energy we saw on the court is just who she is.”
Luafalemana has strengthened Utah’s defense and given them power and versatility on the offense. In September, she was named Defensive Player of the Week. As of Oct. 15, she’d earned 85 blocks, with the team leader being middle hitter Berkeley Oblad, who has 87. Luafalemana has the best hitting percentage on the team with a .378 and 148 kills.
“She is just a very positive, engaging, respectful, loyal person that you want to be around,” Launiere said.
Luafalemana said coming to Utah created a desire for excellence in all areas of her life, not just volleyball. She was committed to UC Irvine when she was told she didn’t qualify academically.
“I’m not going to lie, School wasn’t really something I was focused on,” she said. “It was just volleyball.”
She took a scholarship to Blinn College in Texas, but when her coach left, she transferred to CSI, a junior college that plays in the same league as Salt Lake Community and Snow colleges.
Luafalemana knows something about a championship mentality, as she helped both Blinn (2014) and CSI (2015) win the NJCAA National Championship.
“My visit to Utah was really, really good,” she said. “They really pushed me, and it wasn’t just volleyball. It was academics too. And school is the main reason why I had to go to junior college in the first place.”
Being in three places in three years might be difficult for some, but Luafalemana said she enjoyed it.
“I like change,” she said. “I like living in different places. So I liked it a lot.”
She said she learned a lot from each of her junior college experiences, and that helped her contribute at Utah right away. “I love the pressure situations where they just kind of throw you in,” she said. “I like challenges. I think its just people, all my mentors, have pushed me to want to be in those pressure situations and do those kinds of things.”
And no mentor has been more important than her father.
“He’s taught me to have those high expectations,” she said. “He believes in me, and that’s super cool.” The No. 10 ranked Utes are striving for that same kind of mentality where success is measured by their own effort and not by whether or not they win.
That’s why, even though they extended their win streak to four matches in Arizona last weekend, they were practicing like a team coming off a loss on Monday.
“We didn’t execute as well as we had been,” said Launiere. “But we still found a way to win. So that’s good. We talked about, ‘Let’s not let a loss be what gets us refocused.’ We just didn’t feel that great going into the locker room after this weekend.” They discussed whether or not they felt good about the effort they offered in Arizona.
“Losing gets their attention,” Launiere said. “We’re all human, and they get to a point, and I get it, you’re tired of hearing from the coaches when you’re winning. But the question is: Do you feel good about how we played? And the answer was no.”
Practice on Monday, however, renewed both their confidence and their hunger for victories in their return to the team’s home court at the Huntsman Center.
The Utes take on No. 13 UCLA on Friday at 6 p.m. and then No. 19 USC Sunday at 1 p.m. Friday is the Power of Pink match and Girl Scout Night. Sunday’s game against the Trojans is Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Day.