Prep2Prep 2019-20 NCS Girls Basketball Honors
St. Joseph Notre Dame's Talana Lepolo is the NCS Sophomore of the Year.

NCS Sophomore of the Year

We said it last year when Talana Lepolo was named the Prep2Prep North Coast Section Freshman of the Year, and it will be said again this year. If the decision on who was to be chosen as the top sophomore in the NCS was based solely on stats, the prize for second-year players would not necessarily have gone to Lepolo.

Nonetheless, after being a linchpin in helping lead St. Joseph Notre Dame to the greatest season in school history, Lepolo now makes it two-for-two by following up last year’s P2P freshman honors by being named the 2019-2020 Prep North Coast Section Sophomore of the Year.

“Wow (pause), wow (pause), wow. Thank you so much,” was the initial reaction of Lepolo when told she was a back-to-back winner.

When asked how she felt about the recognition, Lepolo said: "Heck yes. It feels really good. I put in so many hours training, working out and working on my game. It feels like I’m finally getting rewarded for all my hard work.”

Interim Coach Brian Sato won’t be back next season but he knows how important Lepolo was to the success of a season that saw St. Joseph Notre Dame go 24-7 on the court, capture the inaugural North Coast Section Open Division championship, finish as the CIF Northern Regional Open Division runner-up, and finish as the No. 1 team in the Prep2Prep NCS rankings and No. 9 in the final Cal-Hi Sports state rankings.

“I’m very appreciative of the fact others noticed how impactful Talana is on a team,” Sato said. “She didn’t quite stuff the stat sheets but if you were going to have a tough as nails team to get the job done and execute a game plan, to set the tone aggressively both on offense and defense, it starts with Talana Lepolo. Not only was she the tip of the spear for our offensive and defensive attack, Talana is everything and more than you can ever ask for as a coach in a player.”

The fact that Lepolo and the Pilots were able to persevere after the resignation 12-games into the season of former head coach Shawn Hipol, and go as far as they did with an NCS Open title, is a testament to the tough as nails attitude that Sato talks about and she exemplifies.

On the season, the Pilots' 5-7 point guard and floor general averaged 10.4 points, 3.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game, but it was her lockdown defense that almost always came against the opponent’s top perimeter producer, and that has many analysts saying Lepolo is one of the state’s top defenders regardless of their graduating class.

A perfect example was one of her top performances of the season when she had 15 points and picked the pockets of the Salesian players for seven steals in a 68-60 victory.

Despite the fact St. Joseph Notre Dame lost its beloved coach, battled naysayers and doubters that questioned their competitive equity resume, the girls never lost faith in themselves and besides proving those that doubted them wrong, Lepolo and her Pilots teammates had fun along the way.

“The best part of the season was winning the NCS Open Division Championship despite the adversities we had faced,” Lepolo remarked. “The win was especially rewarding because it felt like we had knocked down every wall that was put in front of us to achieve the greatest win of our season.”

“The most fun part was traveling with my team,” Talana continued. “Some of my funniest memories happened off the court when we were together bonding over the most random things like shooting music videos in our hotel room or making TikToks.”

Like every player at every level Talana has a lot of attributes but also has room for improvement.

“I feel my best attributes are that I'm passionate and driven,” Lepolo said “My passion for basketball drives me to constantly want to improve my game.”

“As for improvements,” continued Lepolo “I feel I need to improve on my perimeter game, transition pull-ups, spot-up threes, and making sure my shooting form stays consistent.”

Sato saw it from a different angle that included leadership skills.

“Talana is one of the toughest, most physical competitors I’ve ever worked with,” said Sato. “She takes on any challenge head on and will not shy away from contact or any opponent no matter how strong they are.”

“She is also a leader by example and not by talk but by taking charge and becoming our floor leader and facilitator. I think her personality and demeanor speak volumes. She has a million dollar smile and is always joyful and happy to be around the gym and her teammates,” continued Sato. “Plus, she’s one of the hardest workers on the team. If someone else is doing more, Talana will compete to challenge that. She’s a gym rat who never complains or has a negative attitude.”

As for areas of improvement Sato saw some of the same things as Lepolo.

“I think her outside shooting is going to need to get stronger,” Sato said “She wasn't able to shoot a lot from the outside this season because we had a ton of outside shooters that were more consistent then her, and she readily gave up the rock.”

“I think as she gets older and more teams focus on her driving ability, she will need to really be a knock down shooter from the perimeter so that opponents will not solely key on her penetration,” Sato continued. “She can make a three if need be, but if she wants to continue on to the next level, she is really going to need a jumper with consistency and a quick release due to her height.”

Besides being a leader as only a sophomore, Sato had this to say about what kind of teammate Lepolo was.

“Talana is driven and highly competitive, and she expects the same level of commitment and drive from her teammates without being overly pushy or arrogant. I believe she is well liked by her teammates and of course, she can have a positive impact on team morale and performance if she is creating and being unselfish. I think other players know how good she is and really enjoy how they see her work and bring that elite level of competition to the floor. It helps when there are college level scouts in the gym to see her play, and with that the other girls know, this is serious business so it makes for good motivation and focus.”

St. Joseph Notre Dame had two sets of sisters the past two seasons, and Talana had the chance to play with her older sister Maila Lepolo, a senior who will be playing at William Jessup College in Rocklin. Did being a star and winning awards, including San Francisco Chronicle all-Metro and Bay Area News Group first team in addition to the Prep2Prep honor, create any friction between the sisters? The answer is just the opposite.

“Playing with my sister was such a blessing,” Lepolo responded. “She's my best friend so games, practices, and team events were always fun and I knew that we would support each other unconditionally.”

Besides her sister Maila, the oldest Lepolo sibling is her 23-year old brother Junior, who played baseball at Alameda. There’s little brother Tallan, an 11-year old basketball and football player, and 5-month old infant baby sister Manaia. Her father, Hank Lepolo played football at Jefferson-Daly City, and according to Talana, her mother Liana, who was raised all over the Bay Area, “spent most of her time doing Polynesian dancing.”

Talana is the prototype student-athlete. Besides her basketball prowess she carries a 4.28 GPA and her favorite subject is science, and not surprisingly just like on the court she likes to use her hands in the classroom.

“In the Biomedical program we get to learn through hands on activities like labs and experiments, which gives a more interesting perspective on the lesson,” Talana explained.

Next year will be a huge transition for Lepolo and her Pilots teammates, most of whom are returning despite the fact Hipol is gone and Sato was not returning unless Hipol did as well.

Instead, St. Joseph Notre Dame hired former Oakland Tech, Cal and WNBA star Alexis Gray-Lawson, and the leadership skills of Lepolo that Sato talked about will be crucial for a smooth transition.

“Yes, I plan on returning to St. Joseph Notre Dame and I hope the other girls are too, but next year will definitely be different,” said Lepolo. “I hope that as a team leader I can help bring the girls together through the transition of having a new coach and any other changes that will come.”

“The team had a Zoom meeting with Coach Alexis last week and she shared with us her plans for the upcoming season,” continued Lepolo. “She told us about how she grew up in the Bay Area, was recruited by Cal, and then was drafted to the WNBA. I expect that she will apply her knowledge and first-hand experience to how she coaches us. One of the things I'm looking forward to next year is being coached by someone who played the same position as me and has played at the highest level. The team and I are looking forward to playing together and hopefully continuing to have another successful season.”

That’s the near future but what about long term goals and college possibilities?

“My goal is to play college basketball at the highest level,” Lepolo said. “As far as interests, I have offers from the University of Kentucky, University of the Pacific, University of San Francisco, and the University of Hawaii.”

When asked if she had anything else to add Lepolo naturally had to thank Hipol and she showed a little humility as well.

“Coach Hip was a big part of my development as a player and as a person,” she reflected. “I will forever be grateful for all that he's done for me, and will continue to apply the lessons he taught me in everything I do.”

“Honestly, I didn't expect to get this award, but I'm genuinely beyond grateful,” Lepolo concluded. “When I was told I was definitely surprised and didn't know what to say. I know that there are a lot of talented players in my class so choosing me is humbling.”

Congratulations to Talana Lepolo, the 2019-2020 Prep2Prep North Coast Section Sophomore of the Year.

Others considered include Bishop O'Dowd's Amaya Bonner and Salesian's Silva Fonongaloa.

NOTE: We would like to thank our media partners, coaches, parents, players and fans for contributing photos for our all-section features. We salute all of the players that have made this a wonderful season of NCS basketball.