From Tongan beaches to Juneau turf supremacy Lah Fifita is a young man of few words and big actions. Not only because he is still learning the language of his Juneau-Douglas High School peers, but more so because he is a team player who leads by example.
On Sunday, Fifita was chosen 2011 Defensive Player of the Year by the Alaska Football Coaches Association at their selection meeting in Anchorage.
“I am happy,” Lah Fifita said. “I am surprised. I am happy for my team. I can’t believe I got it. I say thank you to my coaches and my team.”
Fifita grew up on the Pacific Ocean island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga. His athletic career there included a rugby championship at Kelana High School during his eighth grade year (middle schools are considered part of upper education) and any other outdoor activity imaginable in paradise.
“Rugby was harder,” Fifita said. “You run all the time with no breaks and have no pads. And people tackle you just as hard. Football is just fun.”
Fifita came to Juneau in 2008.
“I had never played football before,” Fifita said. “I tried to communicate with the team and talk to the coaches but I really couldn’t speak English.”
The first words the team taught him?
“They say to go get the quarterback,” Fifita laughed. “Hit the quarterback.”
Fifita also stated “In rugby you pass backward, in football you pass forward. That took me a while to learn.”
When asked what he misses most since his move from his Tongan Pacific Island to Juneau’s rainy Tongass Forest , Fafita said “The cooking and the beach.”
Fafita didn’t miss much else, especially on the football field.
He was also selected Sunday to the ACA Large Schools All-State First Team as defensive linebacker.
“Lah has been the most impactful defensive player that we have ever had in the 22 years of having a high school football team,” JDHS head coach Rich Sjoroos said. “I really believe that.”
There is no finger pointing, swagger swaying struts or jersey popping when Fifita’s five-foot-11 frame carrying 230-pounds shuts down any and all offensive traffic.
Ask Fifita why he received the admiration, and nearly unanimous voting (13-1) of coaches from the largest and most competitive school’s in the state and his answer is, well, Tongan.
“It is Bubbles,” Fifita said, referring to teammate and senior lineman Velepoto “Bubbles” Enele, who was the only other Crimson Bears player selected to the first team. “He is good. He gets double-teamed a lot and I am left alone. He is family. He is team. If we have a good D-line, then us linebackers get to do good.”
Enele (5-foot-10, 330 pounds) is good. Chosen as First Team defensive lineman on the field, off the field “Bubbles” had an infectious personality that lifted the team’s spirits.
“They spoke pretty highly in the room about him also,” JDHS head coach Rich Sjoroos said. “So that was pretty neat. And for Lah to have a nearly unanimous vote, well that says a lot about what the opposing coaches thought of him. For all of these kids I look at it as a reflection of the program, we had a solid year and they were the reason.”
Crimson Bears selected to the second team were quarterback Philip Fenumiai, running back Jerick Ibias, center Warren Eckland, wide receiver Sean Niumataevalu and linebacker Alex Matheson.
Fenumiai (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) finished his third year as starting quarterback with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions and a 57 percent completion rate. A duel threat with his running has JD revamping its offensive sets for next season.
Ibias (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) finished fourth in the state in rushing yards, averaging five-and-a-half yards per carry, and had 12 touchdowns, balancing the Crimson Bears backfield.
Eckland (5-foot-10, 213 pounds) was the quiet offensive leader on the line with the best technique. Undersized for the position he took on the state’s best, plus he went against “Bubbles” each day in practice.
Matheson (5-9, 175 pounds) was the defensive captain, calling the defenses on the field and keeping the energy levels up.
Niumataevalu (6-foot, 180 pounds) was the big playmaker, setting a JDHS school record for yards per catch with an average of 25.7 yards. He could stretch the defenses, which opened up the running game. He was also one of the best blocking receivers in the state, a talent that is often overlooked.
The biggest impact, however, was felt by the young man from Tonga.
“Lah was such a game changer,” Sjoroos said. “It allowed the defensive coach to have an aggressive philosophy, knowing that Lah was back there to clean things up if something goes wrong.”
Fafita did that for three years as a Crimson Bears’ starter. As a sophomore he was overlooked by a strong senior linebacker core that included conference player of the year Jack Perkins.
“Perkins was great and deserved his recognition,” Sjoroos commented. “But there was a lot of time we watched videos and Lah was right in there on the tackles. You see Lah involved in all the tackles. He was definitely a bigger contributor than he got credit for because he was a sophomore. You could see the evolution taking place though.”
As a junior Fifita was becoming dominant. Sjoroos said he should have been defensive player of the year last season, instead he was the runner-up to Colony linebacker Trey Farber, now playing at Linfield College.
“I think he got slighted that year,” Sjoroos said. “We actually led the conference in defensive points allowed.”
The Crimson Bears led the conference in that category again this season.
What is important to note is that Fifita didn’t start playing football until he arrived freshman year from Tonga.
“He was a lot smaller back then,” Sjoroos said. “Maybe 160 pounds. Then the kid just kept getting bigger.”
And halfway through that season the rugby miscues began to turn into football success. Studying game film on opponents and learning football terminology aided his English vocabulary as well as his athletic prowess.
“He had the instincts and the desire and then got some muscle behind it,” Sjoroos said. “He has earned this award. No one, around the state, has contributed as much to their team as Lah. What I have learned over the years is that you don’t realize the special kids you had until they are gone. I have learned to appreciate them as they are part of the team. I have enjoyed having Lah and know he will be hard to replace, there probably won’t be another Lah Fifita for quite a while.”
Lah Fafita is going to miss a lot about Juneau too.
Most importantly are the road trips, or “field” trips to Fifita.
“I see things I have never seen before,” Fifita said. “Bear, snow, big houses, a lot of stuff. We saw Las Vegas and drove to Utah too.”
“I hope to play in college,” Fifita said. “Yeah. For my team. It doesn’t matter what college. I just want to go. It will be one big field trip. I want to be a fireman.”
With his resume, polite and family oriented demeanor, and athletic dedication, a lot of colleges are hoping to get him.