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.
“He said, ‘Let’s just see what happens,’ ” Chatterton said. “We put her in and all of the sudden she gets catches every time she wants to get a catch and they’re fouling her every time, so now we’re getting to the free-throw line.”
Highland attempted 34 foul shots in that game, Epenisa scored nine points, and the Rams won by a nine-point margin, their first region win in three seasons. Four days later, Highland defeated East, with Epenisa scoring two points, and the Rams entered the offseason with a boost of confidence.
“Having her on the floor just created so much for us, to have an inside-out presence, which we didn’t have without her,” Chatterton said.
He took the team to multiple team camps throughout the summer, and Epenisa started each game. The experience allowed her to become more comfortable on the court and to build confidence in her own abilities.
“Before games, before we warm up, I always quiet down, that’s how nervous I am,” she said. “When we do the jump for the ball, I always look at my teammates and it gives me confidence.”
From the very start of her first season, Epenisa carried a basketball and her teammates with her nearly everywhere she went. Having so many individuals to lean on is an aspect of team sports that continued to help ease her transition into her new community.
“When I first moved over here, I didn’t really like it. I always stayed home,” she said. “But when I tried out for basketball, the team just bonded. We know each other, we help each other out; when we lose a game, we’re just happy to be around each other.”
Epenisa has also enjoyed the support of her mom and siblings as she has taken on this new challenge and, although she has not seen her dad since moving to Salt Lake — and he has never seen her play — she relives each game with him over the phone on Friday nights.
Now, midway through her second year in a basketball uniform, Epenisa continues to count on her family and her teammates who, along with her, have put together the Rams’ best record since the 2009-10 season. Highland is currently 7-4 overall, 4-1 in Region 6, and enjoyed a seven-game win streak throughout December and January. Epenisa, who is averaging eight points per game, recorded a career-high 20 points in a Jan. 14 win over Cyprus, and is now turning her attention to the idea of a collegiate career.
“It was something I brought to her,” Chatterton said. “I asked, ‘Do you want to continue to play?’ and she said, ‘Can I?’ Kind of an, ‘I didn’t even know that was a possibility’ kind of thing.”
Her coach committed to contacting colleges while Epenisa, now more than ever, works to improve her basketball abilities in hopes it can lead to a college education. With a 3.5 grade point average and interest in math and science, she wants to become a doctor.
She also wants to repay her parents.
“The truth is I don’t really care where. (I just hope) I can find a school that will offer me a scholarship,” Epenisa said through tears, “so that I don’t have to ask my mom to pay for that.
“She helps us a lot, she pays for this, she pays for that. I just want to help my mom out, so I am doing my best in sports, I am working for my own money for college.”
So far, a handful of local community colleges have expressed interest in Epenisa, a step Chatterton is especially proud of.
“She’s a special kid,” Chatterton said. “She’s been a positive influence on our program, and to see the improvements and the time and effort and work she’s put in has been really great.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company