Being Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year is one thing, but for La Jolla Country Day’s Te-hina Paopao the announcement of her getting the honor for this season carries additional meaning since she’s stepping up onto a prestigious platform in which two previous winners from the same school have already reached. Her journey to get there wasn’t nearly the same as those other two or really unlike any we’ve ever covered in girls basketball for the last 40 years.
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If we didn’t say we’ve been waiting four years to honor Te-hina Paopao we’d be outright lying, but now after leading La Jolla Country Day to a 32-1 season and the top spot in the Cal-Hi Sports rankings and every national computer or human ranking, the Torreys’ superstar finally gets her adieu after being named the 2020 Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
Paopao becomes the third Ms. Basketball winner from La Jolla Country Day after joining 2004 winner Candice Wiggins and 2013 winner and Cal-Hi Sports Player of the Decade Kelsey Plum. Paopao is also the fourth winner from the CIF San Diego Section after legendary Terri Mann won twice in 1986 and 1987 while leading San Diego Point Loma to two of its three straight CIF Division I state championships.
Besides garnering the top honor in the Golden State for a girls high school basketball player, the Oregon-bound Paopao, a 5-foot-10 senior who’s listed as a point guard but can play any position on the floor if necessary, has won just about everything she could that was under her partial control.
“That’s amazing. It’s a blessing big time,” responded Paopao when given the news just about everyone expected. “I don’t have idols, but Plum and Wiggins are both tremendous talents and even better people. To be able to have the opportunity to join them with this honor is a blessing and such a humbling experience to be part of. I still talk to them this day and check in with them and ask for advice to prepare for college.”
Besides the Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year award, Paopao was named the Gatorade California State Player of the Year, an honor that eluded Plum and Wiggins. Obviously, she was the top player in the Coastal League and the CIF San Diego Section Player of the Year.
Another thing that’s very impressive about the accomplishments of Paopao this year is that dozens and sometimes over a hundred girls are “nominated” from California for the McDonald’s All-American Game, but more for publicity since 99 percent of girls nominated never had a chance. This year only one girl from the Golden State got the nod. We won’t ask you to guess but we will tell you Paopao was also the only girl from California to be chosen as a Jordan Brand All-American.
What makes it even more special is due to knee injuries that plagued Paopao for her first two seasons, and even her junior campaign last year, this was really her first full season totally healthy, and she definitely made the most of it after averaging 22.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game.
As a shooter, Te-hina made 88 three-pointers and shot 37 percent from outside the arc, 53 percent from the field overall. Paopao was 89-of-101 from the free-throw line, and of the 146 girls in the state reported to have shot at least 80 free-throws, her 88 percent is the highest reported mark.
Te-hina had some great games this season against the top teams in the nation but none was more impressive than in the performance that cemented her status as the top player in the state. In a 59-48 victory over Windward of Los Angeles in the CIF Southern Regional Open Division championship, Paopao went for a game-high 30 points (seven rebounds, four assists, and four steals) with 14 coming in the fourth quarter after the Torreys only led 39-34 after three quarters. Even with the team on her back, Windward closed to 45-44 midway through the fourth quarter, but that’s when Paopao really took over and led a 14-4 run to close out the game. She had eight points and two assists during the run that sealed the deal.
Paopao was over 30 points five times and her high water mark for points was 36 with nine rebounds and six steals in a 79-54 victory over state No. 32 Roosevelt of Eastvale, and in a game she was matched up against Cal-bound Ugonne Onyiah.
Her 10 double-doubles and one triple-double included 19 points and 13 rebounds with six assists and three steals in a 70-59 victory over nationally-ranked Maryland New Hope Academy in the top division of the Nike TOC. In the semifinals that followed Paopao had 28 points, seven rebounds, six steals and two assists in a 62-54 victory over the Archbishop Mitty of San Jose team they were supposed to meet in the CIF Open Division title game.
Former Torreys’ great Plum, who after winning the Ms. Basketball award went on to a record-setting career at Washington and is now a star in the WNBA with the Las Vegas Aces, got a look at Paopao when Te-hina scrimmaged with her as a 10-year old.
“I did see it from the moment I met her,” Plum remarked. “She just has this ability to make people better, on and off the court.
“Even through her injuries, she shined with grace and led her team,” continued Plum. “She is beyond her years and a special person. I’m super happy for her and her success.”
Part of the ability to make people better that Plum talks about has to do with her infectious personality and her smile, but don’t let any of that fool you because Paopao knows when business is business.
“On the court all that matters is winning and doing whatever it takes to come out on top,” Paopao said. “Off the court, I try to be the best person I can be and put smiles on everyone’s faces. A lot of people tell me I smile a lot and I tend to do that on the court too, but it really isn’t hard for me to mix those two because the person I am on and off the court are the same person, because you have to enjoy life and go with the flow.”
For La Jolla Country Day head coach Terri Bamford, the Ms. Basketball honor is the culmination of what she saw since Paopao was a fifth-grader.
“Watching her at her finest and accomplishing all I knew she could is the most amazing feeling,” Bamford remarked. “I was so happy for her to see her healthy and at full strength. Te-hina has so much passion and love for the game of basketball and watching her going through two ACL injuries was devastating. She is such an inspiration to all. No matter what your circumstances in life, if you have passion and work hard enough you can achieve all that you are destined for.”
Bamford, 2012 State Coach of the Year, coached all three Ms. Basketball winners from La Jolla Country Day, and without asking her to make comparisons, what made Paopao special in similar and different ways than Wiggins and Plum?
“I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to coach three Ms. Basketball winners in my coaching career at La Jolla Country Day. All three had things in common, they are fierce competitors, they have passion for the game, and they have work ethic that compares to none,” responded Bamford. “But, Te-hina at a very young age had to learn to deal with tough adversity that took the game away from her for two years. She learned to stay positive and driven while she was working by herself to get back on the court. Then once on the court she had to overcome all the mental and physical things that come with two ACL injuries.”
At one point, it almost became too much for Paopao to overcome, and during her sophomore year that was wiped out by a second knee injury, she contemplated walking away from basketball.
“I had self doubt during my sophomore year because it seemed like it was taking forever to get on the court with my team, and it was hard to watch others play the game while I was on the bench, but it really tested my love for the game, and I really love the game, so I kept going,” Paopao said. “What really convinced me was my support system and my faith in God knowing that he is going to bring me back stronger and healthier. I have a brother, Isaia, who also tore his ACL twice in the same knee, and watching him come back from his second ACL gave me motivation that I had to keep going, and that I couldn’t give in no matter the circumstance.”
One thing still eluded Paopao, however, in her senior year and that was a shot at a CIF Open Division state championship, but like all the other adversity Te-hina has been through with injuries, the pandemic that wiped out the state championships was something that was out of her hands, just like she lost the opportunity to play in the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games that were also cancelled.
“It was disappointing not being able to have a shot at the Open state title,” Paopao remarked. “The day I heard about it my heart sunk because we’ve been working hard to get an Open state title and my teammates were very sad. It was just really hard to grasp the idea that we weren’t able to finish the season, but like I’ve said before, it’s just a reminder that life is bigger than sports.”
We had seen Paopao as an incoming eighth-grader during the summer of 2015, but it really all began in July of 2016 when the Girls of Summer Caravan was in Southern California and we observed Paopao at the San Diego Classic playing as an incoming freshman for Country Day, and then two days later during the first half of the NCAA Viewing period at the Cal Sparks Cali Summer Tip-Off at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, where Te-hina was playing AAU ball for Bamford and the Wiggins Waves.
In the Waves’ game against host Cal Sparks Gold, Paopao was matched up against reining State Freshman of the Year Charisma Osborne, who would go on to win the 2018 Ms. Basketball award. Te-hina more than held her own in a 54-43 Waves victory. Paopao had slightly better stats after finishing with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals, but it was her lockdown defense and superior lateral movement for an incoming freshman that was most impressive.
Then, two months later in open gym, Paopao suffered an injury that was first thought to be just be a hamstring or other less major injury. Further examination after her right knee collapsed determined the injury was worse than originally thought. In October, she had surgery, and she did come back for the final four games of the playoffs but was unable to do very much.
After completing her rehab later that summer of 2017 on her right knee, the awfulness of suffering a second torn ACL (this one on the left knee) might leave some people stunned for months and put a permanent hindrance to someone’s self-confidence.
The second knee injury also wiped out Paopao’s sophomore season, and when she returned for her junior campaign at what Bamford says was about 75 percent, she still averaged 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.4 steals a game, and was a finalist for the 2019 Ms. Basketball honor that went to Stanford freshman and former Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) superstar Haley Jones.
Even with the Ms. Basketball honor, it’s a bit ironic that in her finest hour the season still ended for Paopao with adversity.
“I mean it’s pretty ironic if you ask me,” Paopao said. “We had goals that we set this year, and it was to win the CIF San Diego Open Championship and State Open, but not being able to play in state was pretty devastating.”
“But it was a still great year to finally showcase what I’m capable of with being able to have a full year of health and having a team that knows their roles and would do anything to get a win,” Paopao continued.
Speaking of roles, Paopao had a post player to work with, and last summer Te-hina had said that with 6-foot-3 freshman Breya Cunningham joining her she felt it was a combination that could take the Torreys all the way. They fell just short, but it wasn’t on the court.
Above all other things, Paopao was the consummate teammate.
“Te-hina is the definition of true leadership, a tremendous leader who always led by example,” Bamford said. “She was the first one in practice working on her game and the last one to leave the gym, always putting in extra work, and always came to practice excited to be there and always found a way to have fun while competing at the highest level.
“All her teammates love her and respect her and want to play hard for her. She was a great mentor for all our players,” continued Bamford. “She would invite the young players to stay with her to get extra work after practice or on the weekends. She was the first player to cheer and encourage her teammates when they scored or had a great defensive play.”
Part of the reason Paopao, who is the second youngest of six children, might know a little something about teamwork is her family is like a team in itself and we would need a book to tell its storied history in Oceanside.
Her mother, Diana Paopao, played softball at San Clemente. Her father, Paul Paopao, played football for legendary Oceanside and El Camino of Oceanside head coach Herb Meyer and was a member of the 1985 team that went 13-0 and won the CIF San Diego Section championship.
Between the tenure of Meyer at Oceanside and then when he went to El Camino when it opened, six of Te-hina’s uncles and several cousins played for Meyer. The late Junior Seau is also a relative of Paul Paopao.
Te-hina’s sister Tiare “was a stud softball and basketball player.” Her brother Tofi was a quarterback and went to the San Diego Section football finals four straight years, including winning as a sophomore. Isaia was the starting safety on the Riverside City College state championship team this past season. The youngest sibling, her brother Iosefa, is a junior and plays football. All the Paopao siblings except Te-hina attended or attend Oceanside, and this fall Oceanside should be on one of the top two football teams in San Diego.
“Can’t forget about the girls in the family,” Paopao said. “My first cousins Olive Naotala was one of the best softball players to ever play in San Diego County, and Fale Aviu was a major contributor on the Oklahoma Sooners softball team when they won back to back national championship in 2016 and 2017 and currently my cousin Megan Faraimo is making her own softball legacy at UCLA.”
The original interview for this story had to be re-scheduled because Paopao was doing community service.
“Due to the Coronavirus, a lot of people can’t put food or water on their tables for their families, so my siblings and I pass out packed lunches for those families in need or just food to snack on,” Paopao said. “We do this at schools in Oceanside since my father actually works for Oceanside Unified School District and counsels kids all around the city of Oceanside, so that’s how we are connected to helping these families out during this time.”
Paopao, who carries a 3.3 GPA, is undecided on what she will study at Oregon, and she has a goal to play in the WNBA and then maybe become a coach, but right now becoming a contributing Duck is her immediate goal. With NCAA player of the year and former Ms. Basketball Sabrina Ionescu graduating, the word is that head coach Kelly Graves will be looking to Paopao right from the start.
“Wherever Coach Graves and the coaching staff want me to fit in is where I’ll fit in,” Paopao said. “We haven’t really talked about the contributions but I am preparing and getting ready to play whatever and wherever I’m needed.”
“I feel Te-Hina will be an immediate impact player at the next level,” Bamford said. “She is very skilled, athletic, has a high basketball IQ, is so coachable, and she is a great leader and teammate. She has what it takes to be the next great college player. She is college ready now.”
College and Oregon is on the horizon, but for now Paopao can bask in her acknowledgment as the Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
MS. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
ALL-TIME HONOREES LIST
(All selections by Cal-Hi Sports)
Note: All-time list before 1980 compiled by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis, based on research.
2020 Te-hina Paopao, La Jolla Country Day 5-10
2019 Haley Jones, San Jose Archbishop Mitty 6-2
2018 Charisma Osborne, Los Angeles Windward 5-9 Jr.
2017 Destiny Littleton, La Jolla Bishop’s 5-9
2016 Sabrina Ionescu, Orinda Miramonte
2015 Katie Lou Samuelson, Santa Ana Mater Dei 6-3
2014 Jordin Canada, Los Angeles Windward, 5-7
2013 Kelsey Plum, La Jolla Country Day, 5-10
2012 Nirra Fields, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 5-8
2011 Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Santa Ana Mater Dei 6-0
2010 Chelsea Gray, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-11
2009 Layshia Clarendon, San Bernardino Cajon 5-9
2008 Jasmine Dixon, Long Beach Poly, 5-11
2007 Jeanette Pohlen, Brea Olinda, 6-1
2006 Jacki Gemelos, Stockton St. Mary’s, 6-0
2005 Courtney Paris, Piedmont, 6-4
2004 Candice Wiggins, La Jolla Country Day, 5-11
2003 Dominique Banks, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-8
2002 Sa’de Wiley-Gatewood, Lynwood, 5-7 Soph.
2001 Loree Moore, Harbor City Narbonne, 5-8
2000 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11
1999 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11 Jr.
1998 Michelle Greco, La Crescenta Crescenta Valley, 5-10
1997 Erin Buescher, Santa Rosa Rincon Valley Christian, 6-2
1996 Maylana Martin, Perris, 6-3
1995 Renee Robinson, Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, 5-10
1994 Nicole Erickson, Brea Olinda, 5-7
1993 Danielle Viglione, Fair Oaks Del Campo, 5-10
1992 Charisse Sampson, Los Angeles Washington, 5-11
1991 Tanda Rucker, Berkeley, 5-7
1990 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5
1989 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5 Jr.
1988 Trise Jackson, Lynwood, 5-7
1987 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2
1986 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2 Jr.
1985 Sharon Turner, Oceanside El Camino, 5-9
1984 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3
1983 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3 Jr.
1982 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2
1981 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2 Jr.
1980 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8
1979 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Jr.
1978 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Soph.
1977 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1
1976 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1 Jr.
1975 Anita Ortega, Los Angeles, 5-9
1974 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-9
1973 Ann Meyers, Anaheim Connelly, 5-8 Jr.
1972 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-8 Soph.
Note: List also extends back with assorted years back to 1905 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend