Te-hina Paopao had to fight through two agonizing years of season-ending knee injuries to reach the top of her sport.
Tyson McWilliams endured a pair of shoulder injuries before he finally had to submit to surgery, ending his senior season.
Both showed Union-Tribune, San Diego Sports Association and online voters enough to be named high school Female and Male Athletes of the Year.
Paopao, who led La Jolla Country Day to the Southern California Open Division championship before the basketball season was cut short by the pandemic, beat finalists Carlie Dorostkar of Canyon Crest, the Gatorade state Runner of the Year in cross country, and Libby Fleming of Torrey Pines, a junior who was the San Diego Section individual golf champion.
McWilliams, a starter in football and basketball at St. Augustine, edged record-setting Bishop’s junior quarterback Tyler Buchner and Poway state champion wrestler Andre Gonzales.
For Paopao, a 5-foot-10 senior guard who is headed to Oregon, this culminates a season in which she was named state Player of the Year by both MaxPreps and Cal-Hi Sports and was a McDonald’s All-American.
“I couldn’t be more blessed,” said Paopao, whose brother Tofi quarterbacked the Oceanside football team to a 12-1 record in 2012.
“The injuries (ACL surgeries which saw her play just four games in her freshman and sophomore seasons) didn’t stop me. I love the game of basketball, have a passion for the game.
“I knew I’d be OK when I got healthy.
“All the rehab those two years helped me because I was able to incorporate a lot of defensive work into my workouts. Defense was something I had struggled with. Now I think I set the standard on defense.”
La Jolla Country Day was 18-12 when Paopao missed her freshman year. The Torreys were 20-9 when she sat out her sophomore season.
As a junior she averaged 17.5 points and the team was 22-12.
This season, she averaged 22.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists as the Torreys finished 32-1 and were declared national champions by MaxPreps.
“Before the season, I told the team we could go far,” Paopao said. “We had a great mix of upperclassmen and freshmen. It’s such a bummer this team couldn’t play for a state championship.”
La Jolla Country Day coach Terri Bamford has had three state Players of the Year — Paopao, Candice Wiggins and Kelsey Plum.
All are special, she said, but Paopao stands out because of what she had to overcome.
“Te-hina at a very young age had to learn to deal with adversity that took the game away for two years,” Bamford said.
“But she stayed positive. Was driven. Worked hard to get back on the court.
“Once she was healthy, she had to overcome the mental side of two ACL injuries.
“So seeing her healthy and at her best is a most-amazing feeling.”
Paopao’s long-term goal is to play in the WNBA. Oregon had three players — Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard — taken in the first round of the recent WNBA Draft.
“Pro ball is my goal, and the WNBA Draft is a testament to the Oregon program,” Paopao said.
McWilliams, who is headed to Cal to play football, dislocated his shoulder early in a loss to archrival Cathedral Catholic in October. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound senior missed two games but came back to play in a tough loss to Helix in the Open Division playoffs.
Then he tore his labrum in a basketball game against Cathedral Catholic in January. He played through the pain and finished the game — a heartbreaking 59-57 loss. After some deliberation, he elected season-ending surgery.
“As a senior captain, it was tough to go out that way, especially because we had five other seniors,” said McWilliams, whose father Johnny played football at USC and in the NFL while brother Johnny played basketball at Fresno State after an outstanding two-sport prep career at San Marcos.
“It’s those teammates, the students, the teachers that make St. Augustine so special. You really don’t realize how special this place is, the tradition, until you’re part of it.”
While McWilliams’ brother chose to play college basketball, football was an easy choice for Tyson.
“I was an AAU basketball standout, so I thought that was going to be my sport,” McWilliams said. “Honestly, I was a minimal-play kid in Pop Warner.
“But I had six interceptions as a sophomore on the varsity, so football really came into focus. My dad lit up when I told him it was football first.”
Saints football coach Joe Kremer was happy with Tyson’s choice.
“Tyson is an extremely versatile athlete who possesses high skill levels in football and basketball, but he’s an even better person and leader,” Kremer said. “St. Augustine and our football and basketball programs will miss his leadership and positive presence.”
St. Augustine basketball coach Mike Haupt said the Saints benefited from McWilliams’ “calmness, experience and leadership.”
And when he was injured, “we just couldn’t replace him,” Haupt said.
“He got hurt early in the game against Cathedral, but played through the pain,” Haupt said. “He tried to play with a torn labrum, then he tried to bug me to come back. That’s how tough he is. That’s how much he cares.
“He was a dream player, a kid who cared more about the team and winning than about his stats.
“He was a great fit for St. Augustine.”