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Saint Mary’s-bound Puletasi adds to Panthers’ power

Tifa Puletasi has averaged nearly 13 points during Mead’s last five games.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Tifa Puletasi has averaged nearly 13 points during Mead’s last five games. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It has taken Mead’s Tifa Puletasi time to discover how good a basketball player she can be.

The realization hit home last week after the Panthers’ post player of Samoan and Native American descent made an oral commitment to play for Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference.

“I got to thinking in practice the other day when I was laughing and having a good time, ‘Wow, I’m going to college and have to step it up and do something,’ ” Puletasi said.

Puletasi was the second-leading scorer at Mead last season, her first full year of varsity basketball. She increased her average by nearly four points, to 12.5 points per game, during district and regional, making the all-tournament team in the latter. This year she’s the second-leading scorer, with a 10.2 average, for the Greater Spokane League’s co-second-place team.

Colleges took notice and Saint Mary’s coach Paul Thomas made the offer and got the commitment.

“Tifa has the body, the tools and the physicality for Division I,” Panthers coach Regan Drew said. “She doesn’t realize how strong she truly is yet. She will have to get in great shape and really want it. But in the last year and one-half, I’ve seen a ton of growth.”

Puletasi wasn’t as precocious as the trio of freshmen – Jazmine Redmon, Alexis Olgard and Kristina Puthoff – who made varsity in 2006-07, one year ahead of her although they were one year younger. She was admittedly a less-than-diligent student early in high school.

“I didn’t care my freshman and sophomore years,” she said. “Now I have to.”

But she did get a taste of postseason basketball in 2007 when Drew moved her onto the traveling roster of the eventual fourth-place state-finishing team. Last year things began to click.

“Kids kind of figure things out at different time and mature differently,” Drew said. “As a sophomore she had the tools to be a varsity player, but I felt the mental piece needed growing. She took time away from the game, thought, ‘I really love this, this is what is expected of me,’ and came back as a junior completely refreshed.”

Puletasi said she has always been a point guard at heart but a post physically. She grew 7 inches between sixth and seventh grade and played freshman and junior varsity basketball her first two years at Mead.

Her natural strength was evident in track and field when she put the shot more than 37 feet as a sophomore.

She said time spent working with basketball that summer paid off.

“Being younger, you think the world of yourself until you actually play with some older players,” Puletasi said. “To be honest, when I didn’t make varsity my sophomore year I was probably not very good – a very mediocre player. But I stuck with it, kept my hopes alive and now I’m here.”

As a junior, with Olgard in the post, she was able to play facing the basket more and use her combination of skills and size to advantage. But Olgard is now concentrating on volleyball and Puletasi, at 6-foot-2 the tallest player on the team, has been asked to play that spot. Puthoff moved away for family reasons, increasing the need to score.

Puletasi started strongly but had a four-game slump. Drew said some of that came from teams double- and triple-teaming her. Also, the snowy winter disrupted routines.

“I went into this little lull,” Puletasi said. “I was stressed about college and what not.”

In five subsequent games she bounced back to average nearly 13 points per game.

Drew said Saint Mary’s coach Thomas came to Spokane to acquaint himself with a city and league that has produced such a wealth of Division I talent. He watched Puletasi play last summer with her club team and this year with the Panthers before making the offer.

Puletasi will be back playing a comfortable position in college. The Gaels already have 6-6 and 6-4 posts.

“When I visited, the coaching staff was like amazing and young,” she said. “You can connect with them and (Thomas) showed how much he wanted me. I met all the girls and they were super cool. It’s an atmosphere I want to be in.”

Tifa’s name is shortened from Tifaimoana, the name given her by her grandmother, as is Samoan custom for a first-born child. She was born in Hawaii to military parents. She lived there with her grandparents for a time while her parents were on tours of duty.

After their divorce, she lived with her mother in Montana where she first picked up basketball. She said she eventually moved here permanently to be with her father, medically retired following an injury in Iraq.

Sports is a natural extension of the family. An uncle, Joe Salave’a, is an assistant coach at San Jose State following a college and professional football career.

“Tifa has a tremendous amount of untapped potential,” Drew said. “That upside is a huge thing for colleges to look at.”

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