By JEFF HELMINIAK
Soldotna graduate Ituau Tuisaula loves basketball so much that she played 11 games her sophomore season on a right knee with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and a left knee with a torn ACL.
On April 26, Tuisaula, at 6-foot-0, signed to take that love of basketball to Division II University of Alaska Fairbanks next season.
“She’s the toughest individual I’ve ever been around when it comes to focusing beyond pain and not letting it get to her,” SoHi head basketball coach Kyle McFall said. “When she’s actually honest, she’ll tell you she was in a lot of pain the whole time, but she pushed through that to play a significant role in 11 games.”
Tuisaula, the daughter of Wendell and Patsy Tuisaula of Soldotna, tore the ACL in her left knee before her eighth grade basketball season. She didn’t play that basketball season, but played her freshman season in volleyball on the damaged knee.
“I talked to the doctor and as long as I felt fine and comfortable in my knee brace I could play,” Tuisaula said.
She said there was little pain that season, but just before her freshman season in basketball, she tore the MCL and ACL in her right knee, but came back for the final 11 games to help SoHi go 8-3.
She’s not about to pretend that wasn’t painful.
“Honestly, it was my drive to play in the games, because sitting on the sideline really sucks and I felt that my sophomore season,” Tuisaula said. “My drive to play the game took over for any pain. I enjoyed the game so much, I was willing to play.”
The summer before her sophomore year, both knees had to be fixed. She started with surgery on her right knee. Just when she was walking around and feeling good after four weeks, she had to go in for surgery on the left knee.
Intense rehabilitation then began.
“It was a long summer,” she said.
Tuisaula persevered and had successful junior and senior seasons in volleyball, basketball and track and field.
“Everybody needs to realize what she went through with her injuries and how she still maintained a positive attitude in school,” McFall said. “She’s one of those people other people gravitate to and give her hugs.
“She’ll get a hug and I’ll ask, ‘Do you know who that is?’ and she’ll say, ‘I think so.’ She has a larger than life personality and you don’t get to meet those people in life too often.”
In volleyball, Tuisaula led Soldotna to the state tournament as a junior and senior, getting on the all-state team both seasons. In 2019, she was the MVP of the Northern Lights Conference.
“The options for growth were endless with her,” Soldotna head volleyball coach Luke Baumer said. “Shot put, basketball, volleyball, anything, when she came to sports she was dominant.
“Coaches were all mesmerized at what an amazing athlete she was.”
Baumer said nobody could stop Tuisaula, so she always got the ball in the game’s biggest moments, but that Tuisaula is so much more than that.
“In my mind, her personality is just as equal, if not more, than her athletic abilities,” Baumer said.
In basketball, Tuisaula was MVP of the NLC her junior and senior seasons, making first-team all-state as a junior and second team this year.
She led the Stars to the state tournament as a junior, but didn’t get the chance as a senior when the season was cut short due to the threat of the new coronavirus.
McFall said as Tuisaula feels more comfortable with her knees, her true potential is starting to show.
“This year, you’re starting to see where she can be more explosive for her size and what she can do with her body down low,” the coach said. “She’s also able to go out on the perimeter and be agile and beat people off the dribble.”
Tuisaula won Region III/4A shot put titles as a sophomore and junior, winning the region title in the discus as a junior. She was runner-up in the shot put in the Class 4A state meet as a junior, and never got a chance to throw as a senior due to the pandemic.
McFall said Tuisaula has always been committed in the offseason, but also took time out for volleyball and the throws. The coach said that once Tuisaula has time to focus on basketball, further recover from her surgeries and adjust to the speed and size of the Division II level, she should be a special player for UAF.
Tuisaula said deciding to pursue basketball was easy.
“I love volleyball, it’s fun, but I’ve always had a deeper love for basketball,” she said. “I started basketball first when I was very young and that was my dream, to play basketball at the next level.”
She said she decided on UAF because she got the sense the program has a supportive, family feel.
“I love it,” she said. “It reminded me of home. I’ll be close to home, anyway, but this will be my home away from home and that was a huge factor for me.”
She said that athletic and academic scholarships should cover most of the school cost, and she can earn more athletic money each year.
Tuisaula, who had a 4.0 grade-point average her senior year to push her overall to about 3.6, will study biological sciences with the goal of eventually becoming a physical therapist.
She thanked her parents and every coach she’s ever had for getting her where she is today.