By Sandy Ringer
Seattle Times staff reporter
AUBURN — Pat Tepea left stormy surroundings and a lot of sunshine when he moved from Hawaii to Auburn as a junior last year.
He had his reservations, as any 16-year-old would. Deep down, though, he knew change would be good.
Tepea says drugs were common at his old school and even players on his former team would be high at practice.
"There was a lot of bad stuff that went around," Tepea said of Kailua High School on Oahu near Honolulu. "There were a lot of drugs going around. I remember a lot of people coming to practice on stuff and crazy things like that."
Plenty of good stuff happened to Tepea at Auburn High School last fall as he was a key part of a 12-0 ride that took the Trojans to the Class 3A state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Bellevue.
On a team anchored by Kellen Kiilsgaard, an all-state defensive back and versatile quarterback now at Stanford, Tepea (5 feet 10, 175 pounds) wound up as Auburn's third-leading rusher with 445 yards on 38 carries and scored seven touchdowns, earning second-team honors in the All-South Puget Sound League 3A voting. He also was a valuable backup to Kiilsgaard at safety. A hard hitter with good speed, Tepea has drawn college interest.
"I expect him to be the best defensive back in the league," Auburn coach Gordon Elliott said.
That's one reason Tepea's mom and stepfather decided to move here for a job. Tepea was hesitant, but older brother Nicholas, who now plays football at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., helped persuade him.
"Nicholas told him he was going to get more opportunities and be seen by more schools," said their mom, Andra Phithamma.
She also wanted Pat in a better environment. Hitting on the football field was never a problem for him. Fighting away from the field, however, had gotten him in trouble — so much so that his mom sent Pat to live with his father for part of his freshman year.
"I was getting into fights and messing around with the wrong people," Tepea said. "After my mom sent me to live with my dad to clean my act up, I came back my sophomore year and actually did very well. I kept out of trouble and I've been out since."
Phithamma said Pat seemed a bit "lost and confused" after his parents divorced and she ultimately decided he needed to spend time at his father's.
"He came back a changed person," she said.
Tepea moved up to the Kailua varsity team by the end of his sophomore year, but knew the task would be tougher at Auburn. He was excited and uneasy.
"When I first came here, I was nervous," Tepea said. "I had to fit in with people, for one. It was kind of hard. I had to sacrifice a lot and work my way up. A lot of people would test me to see if I was fast and if I could hit."
He is and he can.
"He's an explosive, dangerous player," Sumner coach Keith Ross said. "He's one of those kids who can change a game."
Tepea, who also runs track, expects Auburn's success to continue despite heavy graduation losses.
"People can say we lost a lot of people, but I can say we have just as strong players as we did last year, just not as big a names," he said.
Tepea made a name for himself last season and should be an even bigger part of the story line this year.