Within a week of her walking on to the court as a freshman, Anne Smith knew she had someone special.
Throughout the years, she saw Leilani Otuafi continue to grow and develop as a basketball player and a leader, powering Fallon to three-straight state basketball championships to close out her playing career and Smith’s coaching career at Fallon.
“What stood out to me was the confidence she had in herself as a freshman coming into varsity and playing with other varsity athletes, and not being intimidated and being confident in herself,” Smith recalled of Otuafi’s freshman year. “I knew she was good. I don’t think I fully understood until exactly her freshman year.”
Otuafi, who started all four years in basketball, played on Jam On It’s AAU team and is attending Brigham Young University on a basketball scholarship, is this year’s Lahontan Valley News Female Athlete of the Year.
“My goals were to get into college for basketball to continue my career after high school,” Otuafi said. “I also wanted to win state and it was all fulfilled when I committed to BYU and won state in March.”
Otuafi was an immediate contributor as a freshman when Fallon finished undefeated in league, took second in the regional tournament to qualify for state. She was named to the all-state first team and was the league’s Most Valuable Player. The following years were nearly identical with the awards with the exception of that Fallon won both regional and state titles for the last three years and Otuafi was a second-team, all-state selection during her junior year.
And she broke the school’s career scoring record in February. There was no question that the school record was going to get broken. It was just a matter of time – and some confusion.
“I sure was happy for her,” Smith said. “To see someone who has put in the amount of time into her sport as she has, I was just really happy for her to break that record and set a new record.”
Originally, Otuafi appeared to have broken the record during the state semifinal game in February. But after going through the stats from her previous years, one game was missed. The record was broken on a pair of free throws in the regional championship against Lowry – Fallon’s biggest rival in all four years of Otuafi’s career.
“Breaking the scoring record was a great accomplishment for me because it showed that all my hard work on and off the court has paid off,” said Otuafi, who finished her career with 1,400 points to eclipse Carey Behimer Gantt’s record set in the 1980s.
But it was always more than breaking records and winning state championships for Otuafi.
She became a leader during her sophomore season when Fallon won its first NIAA-sanctioned state title but her qualities were never more tested than her final year with a mostly new team.
“A lot of what we saw her sophomore year was that she was a leader. You started to see that maturity,” Smith said. “As far as play, it was the same group of girls. You got to see more of that her senior year. She had a way of making others around her better. She was always excited to see other girls on the team succeed. That’s what made her a great leader on the floor.”
After seeing the core group from the first two state titles graduate, it was up to Otuafi, her cousin, Leta Otuafi, and fellow seniors Alexis Jarrett and Kenna Hamlin to guide the team to another championship. At one point during the season when Fallon almost lost to its cross-valley rival, Smith and her seniors fired up the team and the rest was history.
“What stood out for me this year with Lani, was more of the weight of our success was more on her shoulders. It was a new team,” Smith said. “A lot of our success rested on her shoulders whereas in the previous years, it spread a little more. What I noticed in her senior year was to carry that pressure and to be able to perform so we can be successful.”
Otuafi credits her ethic to her father, Motulalo Otuafi.
“My model that I follow is my dad. He came to this little town and has made a name for himself by leading by example,” she said. “My dad is my biggest influence because he taught me so many things to help me understand what it takes to succeed.”
The highlight reel for Otuafi is massive and many teams have fallen victim to Otuafi’s versatility on the court. From driving into the paint to pulling up for a 3, she was effective. Two games stood out for Smith when Otuafi took control of the game as an underclassmen and then showed determination against Truckee in this year’s regional playoffs.
“Lani took over and we ended up winning by three or four (against Lowry). It came down to a couple of her free throws to make it a two-possession game,” Smith said. “That game I won’t forget ever because it was such a clutch game for us. Playing in Lowry is always such a tough place to play.
“She played completely exhausted (against Truckee), probably because she was trying to break the record. I remember Lex (Alexis Jarrett) going over. She could barely walk. I really admired her effort. She doesn’t give up. Clearly, she was exhausted but she didn’t quit.”
What also made Otuafi special was her ability to make everyone laugh.
“She was the clown but she also knew when to get serious and down to business,” Smith said. “She had keen awareness of how to do both. She was just a delight to be around. In the four years, she never missed one practice except for this year when she sprained her ankle. She was dedicated and a hard worker.”
As for her future, Otuafi is living in Provo, attending classes and getting acquainted with the Cougars’ basketball team. Her goals are to succeed both in the classroom and on the court just as she did in Fallon in addition to strengthening her testimony.
None of this, though, would be possible without her family’s support. From her parents and sister attending games to the entire Otuafi clan showing up in force to support both her and Leta, Leilani Otuafi has never been alone.
“My family has always been by my side throughout my whole career and is still with me now as I continue on,” she said. “They’ve supported me in everything I do with a 100 percent great attitude and full of love. They make so many sacrifices for me to go on and continue my journey and I am forever thankful.”