In a season where there were a number of great candidates for the overall Daily Journal Boys’ Athlete of the Year, recent Aragon High graduate Sam Tuivailala stood head and shoulders above the rest.
That’s hard to do.
Forget the fact that Tuivailala recently signed a contract to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, who selected him in the third round with the 106th pick of the Major League Baseball Draft two weeks ago. Forget for a second how many times the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder dazzled onlookers with an incredible play that had them gasping for superlatives afterwards.
Even if you disregard his enormous potential and freakish athleticism, Tuivailala’s production in three sports — baseball, basketball and football — was second to none. He earned Peninsula Athletic League first team honors in all three sports, including the Bay Division’s football Utility Player of the Year and the Co-Pitcher of the Year in the Bay for baseball.
Tuivailala got everything he could out of his vast skill set, noteworthy because often times the best athletes in high school aren’t always the most productive ones. Tuivailala was the complete package.
One of the best
“I would put Sam on a very short list with (former Aragon standout brothers) Manase and Matangi (Tonga) as the greatest athletes in Aragon history,” said Dons athletic director and football coach Steve Sell, who was a former two sport standout at Aragon. “We’ve had our share of ‘Wow’ athletes, guys who made you shake your head. In terms of the wow factor, Sam is a genetic freak in that he always pulled off the unbelievable. If you put together a highlight film of him, it would be a mini series with the number of things he did.”
In football, Tuivailala played quarterback, defensive back and punter. He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes, finished with a couple of interceptions on defense and wasn’t bad at pinning the opposition deep in its own end with a booming punt or two.
“We’ve had players mean a lot to us before, but Sam did everything for us,” Sell said. “If we don’t have Sam in football this year, I couldn’t imagine what our record would’ve been (Aragon finished 7-5). Every once in a while I find myself thinking, ‘Oh my God, what would’ve happened if we didn’t have Sam?’”
Fortunately for Sell, he didn’t have to find out. Neither did Aragon’s basketball or baseball teams. Although many regard basketball as Tuivailala’s third-best sport, he was no less successful on the hardwood. Tuivailala averaged close to 15 points per game as a wing player and perhaps even more importantly was a ferocious defender.
Most proud of work on court
Time and again, Tuivailala used his tremendous instincts to come away with steals and go down the other end of the floor for a layup. While outside shooting has never been his forte, Tuivailala improved in that area as well. It’s a testament to his pride and passion for the game that Tuivailala produced a standout hoops season.
After all, the only time he could improve on his basketball skills was during the high school season. The rest of the year was consumed by football and baseball activities. That’s why Tuivailala felt particularly proud of his season on the hardwood.
“It was a really great season,” he said. “There were some games I scored over 20 points, and the first couple of times I did it shocked me because growing up I never thought I would score 20 points in a varsity basketball game. When coach (Arjuna Manning-Laisne) told me I had made all league (in the PAL Ocean Division), I was blown away because I never thought basketball was a really strong sport for me.”
Baseball becomes claim to fame
Of course, Tuivailala, along with a number of other people, expected plenty of big things when baseball season rolled around. He didn’t disappoint, going 6-0 with a 1.28 ERA while striking out 77 in 60 1/3 innings. Among the right-hander’s highlights: A no-hitter with 17 strikeouts in a 9-0 win over Half Moon Bay. When Tuivailala wasn’t pitching, he played shortstop and hit No. 3 in the lineup.
Tuivailala’s hitting stats weren’t too shabby, either, as he batted .324 with five home runs and 21 RBIs. Armed with electric stuff — Tuivailala pumped out fastballs in the low 90s to go along with a devastating curve that often made opponents look silly — he mixed speeds effectively and displayed superior control to keep hitters off-balance.
“That no-hitter against Half Moon Bay wasn’t even fair,” said Aragon and San Mateo Palomino White Sox baseball manager Lenny Souza, who coached Tuivailala for four summers with the Palomino team and four years at Aragon, the first two when Tuivailala was on the Dons’ junior varsity squad and the final two on the varsity. “His stuff was filthy, but the funny thing is, I don’t even rank that among Sam’s top four performances.”
“The Aptos (2-1 loss in the opening round of the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs) and Hillsdale (3-2, 10-inning win on the final day of the league season to clinch a spot in the postseason) game was the best I’ve seen Sam pitch,” Souza said. “And in the wins over Carlmont and Burlingame, Sam was pretty amazing, too.”
Souza credited Tuivailala for putting up superstar numbers without acting like one.
“If anyone says anything bad about that kid, they’re a straight-up hater,” he said. “Just Sam’s demeanor and being a quality person moved him up a couple of rounds (in the draft). He’s the most humble kid I know and he’s the most athletic.”
Taking a chance
In terms of putting his name out there for pro scouts, Tuivailala was literally an overnight sensation. Despite putting up monster seasons in baseball and football during his junior year, Tuivailala wasn’t widely known to many prospective Division I football or baseball programs because he hadn’t taken part in the traditional summer all-star showcase events athletes of his caliber routinely participate in.
It just wasn’t his thing.
But his parents, Julie and Sione, finally convinced him to take a flyer of sorts and take part in a baseball showcase near Sacramento last July. By his lofty standards, Tuivailala didn’t have to do anything special — well, if you don’t consider hitting 93 mph on the radar gun and hitting a home run and triple while displaying quickness on the basepaths a big deal — to impress the scouts.
All of this was second nature to Tuivailala, who had displayed this type of prowess on many occasions. But this time, a large gathering of college coaches and pro baseball scouts were on hand to watch his every move and they obviously liked what they saw. A day after the showcase, a half-dozen scouts showed up to watch Tuivailala at a White Sox game. The extra attention proved to be a harbinger for his senior season, as a swarm of scouts were regularly on hand to watch Aragon games.
“The rolodex in my phone now has 11 (MLB) scout contacts, 10 Division I coaches and so many new contacts I didn’t have in there a year ago,” Souza said. “And it was because of Sam and what he brought to the program. People know who we are now because of him. We had front row seats to something that none of us have ever dealt with before or imagined for that matter, and it was an absolute blast.”
Despite being a more accomplished pitcher than position player in high school, St. Louis drafted Tuivailala with the intention of having him play shortstop, third base or center field. His athleticism, along with his bat speed and strength, make Tuivailala a prime candidate to make an impact as an everyday player. Tuivailala said it doesn’t matter where he plays professionally — he just wants to play.
It’s the attitude Tuivailala had about sports growing up, a big reason why he chose to play four of them as a kid on a regular basis. At one point, soccer was Tuivailala’s No. 1 love, with baseball a distant fourth behind soccer, basketball and football.
“My mom and dad kind of pushed me into baseball, which I’m grateful for,” Tuivailala said. “I told them the only way I was going to play was if they bought me new video games. After a while I started liking baseball and they didn’t need to buy me any more video games.”
Just how great of an athlete is Tuivailala? Sell said Tuivailala probably would’ve been an all-county soccer player had he been given a chance to compete in the sport — soccer and basketball are both played in the winter sports season — along with a chance to be excel at other positions, too.
“If you could clone Sam, he would’ve been one heck of a soccer player,” Sell said. “And if he wasn’t our quarterback, he would be the best wide receiver in the county — and no one would’ve been close. I’m also convinced if Sam went with football (at the pro level) instead of baseball, he could develop into an NFL punter. He’s that great of an athlete.”
Play-making athlete? Check. Great person? You bet. Big-time producer in whatever he did? Oh yeah. But if Tuivailala makes the majors, his greatest accomplishment will be that of a trailblazer. It is believed no player of Tongan ancestry has made the big leagues, and Tuivailala is hoping to become the first.
“That would be unbelievable,” he said.
Which would be an accurate way to describe Tuivailala’s high school career.