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Former MIL rivals now teammates in Utah

Lahainaluna grad Lai and Baldwin alum Mafatini connect at Snow College, have D-I in mind

Tuipulotu Lai (left) and Mafatini Mafatini pose for a photo at a Snow College practice last week. Lai, a 2020 graduate of Lahainaluna High School, is a defensive lineman who signed with Brigham Young University out of high school but needed to clear some academic issues before enrolling, which led him to Snow. Mafatini, a 2021 graduate of Baldwin, is an offensive lineman who was an MIL first-team All-Star in 2019 but lost his senior season due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Photo courtesy of Tuipulotu Lai

They were rivals in the Maui Interscholastic League, but are now teammates in Ephraim, Utah.

Tuipulotu Lai and Mafatini Mafatini took different paths to arrive at Snow College, but both are now there to play football.

Lai is a 2020 graduate of Lahainaluna High School and was The Maui News MIL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.

He signed with Brigham Young University out of high school but needed to clear some academic issues before enrolling, which led him to Snow, where he has made himself at home.

“I’m actually pretty much loving it right now, I kind of like it out here,” said Lai, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman. “It really does give me opportunities with other (Division I) connections because Utah State, they are really interested in me right now because of my D-line coach out here.

“Some of the boys here are bringing attention out here to Snow College and other schools such as Baylor and Oregon are talking to them and they are just spreading the word, spreading my name out there, too. It’s just nice to have all these D-I connections.”

Mafatini is a 6-3, 295-pound offensive lineman who is a 2021 graduate of Baldwin. He was on the 2019 MIL All-Star first team with Lai on the defensive line as well as a second-team All-Star on the offensive line, but missed his senior season due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I was looking at schools kind of near the West Coast,” Mafatini said. “Whatever I could get, you know, help with the funds. So, I was looking at good football programs and I realized that because my grades weren’t exactly eligible for D-I that I had to take the JC route. … Snow College was one of the only schools on the West Coast that really had a team and a plus thing was I had family up here.”

Mafatini is happy to have the opportunity to continue his football career.

“It was a blessing to have another opportunity to play football, I could have been done for my career, honestly,” he said. “I’m just happy to have another chance and get out there and have fun.”

Lai is happy to have a familiar face on the roster.

“I was surprised to see Mafatini here,” Lai said. “I ran into him just earlier here. I came back and said, ‘Oh bro, aren’t you the one from Baldwin?’ We were just like chopping it up and talking story and I was just telling him, like, ‘Snow really puts your name out there’ because Snow is really known for D-linemen and O-linemen.”

Mafatini said he was also pleasantly surprised to see a fellow Mauian in Utah.

“It’s good to have a familiar face whenever I feel like — I don’t want to say uncomfortable — but it just helps me realize there’s people like me doing it, too,” Mafatini said. “Just people missing home.”

Both Mauians are well aware of the current pause of MIL sports due to the pandemic.

“I just tell my boys that this is an opportunity to keep working,” Mafatini said. “Just basically ‘keep trying to get better at your craft’ and all that.”

Lai plans to finish his associate’s degree in the spring “and if everything is all situated with grades and everything, then I would be set to go to BYU (next) fall,” Lai said. “Yes sir, I’m still committed to BYU. I still keep in contact with them, I’m still highly interested with them and I’m just waiting to whatevers — God’s plan (is) just leading the way.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Snow to play its most recent season in the spring, and now the Badgers are right back at it in training camp.

Lai recorded four tackles in the three games he appeared in the spring season for a defense that allowed just 248.2 yards and 15.6 points per game.

Because of COVID eligibility rules, Lai is still considered a freshman this fall. Lai is working out with the second unit early in fall camp that began last week.

“I’m definitely ready to roll, having a little taste of what it’s like playing college ball last year and just coming back this year to play again, it’s a blessing,” Lai said. “Running with the twos and just trying to be the big man out here. Out here, our defense was, we were like No. 1 in the country last year, so we have a really good defense right now. We only lost three D-lineman.”

Lai said he feels he is preparing well for the next level.

“We do have D-I bounce-backs from schools in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others,” Lai said. “I went against these Maryland guys and a Nebraska bounce-back. It’s just like a different experience out here, it definitely gives me some confidence, just hanging with the big boys. Just trying to grind and deserve that spot, get out to BYU as quickly as possible.”

He has shed 20 pounds from his days as a Luna.

“I’m the right number,” he said. “Right now they’re asking me to stay in between 300 and 310, just because they are moving me back and forth on the nose and D-end. I’m kind of comfortable with the outside more, playing as a D-end. In my opinion I just feel like I play better out there, but other than that I really don’t mind playing whatever position coach puts me in.”

Mafatini is also trying to capitalize on the chance to play the game he loves. With school not starting until later this month, right now both Mauians’ days are filled with football.

“I definitely feel like D-I is a possibility for me,” Mafatini said. “It’s just a blessing to play in a college environment. It’s just really fast-paced, everything is on a schedule, one thing after another. They kind of stretch us out the whole day, I don’t really have a lot of down time … but I love it.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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