When Liona Lefau left Kahuku Intermediate School after seventh grade, there was no timetable on a return.
The lanky athlete attended JSerra Catholic School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., working out in the offseason with Stronghouse Performance — coached by a cousin, Shiloh Te‘o.
Two years later, prior to his sophomore year, Lefau returned to the North Shore. Now, he was a 6-foot-2, 205-pound linebacker. After playing in a 7v7 tournament in Nevada last summer, Wisconsin and Utah offered him scholarships.
Last week, Virginia followed suit. Each offer is an eye-popping thrill for Lefau, who grew up surrounded by cousins with the legacy of playing Kahuku football. One of them is legendary running back Mark Atuaia.
That is when the connection to Virginia strengthened.
“First, their linebackers coach (Shane Hunter) followed me on Twitter awhile before, after the Wisconsin offer,” Lefau said.
With events across the state largely cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, the annual Christmas Bowl was sidelined — but not silenced.
“Ever since we started Christmas break, me and some of my friends go to Laie Park and play football. We didn’t do the Christmas Bowl this year, so we were making our own. There was enough to play sevens and we had to wear masks,” Lefau recalled.
Who happened to be strolling by, visiting home all the way from the East Coast? Atuaia.
“He walked by the park and was watching for a little bit. He said he liked what he seen,” Lefau said of his father’s cousin. “My athleticism. Then he talked to the linebackers coach and found out he had already watched my film from before.”
That led to a phone call from the Lefau household to Coach Hunter.
“We had to call them the next morning, early because of the time difference. The coach said he trusts my Uncle Mark because he’s really strict when he picks players from Hawaii,” Lefau said.
The video showed him operating as a safety and also at defensive end.
“That was from my freshman year at JSerra,” Lefau said. “We talked for a while, so they offered me. I feel blessed to even get this opportunity, to get these offers when we haven’t had a football season.”
Lefau is aware of other island connections at Virginia. Running back Wayne Taulapapa and defensive lineman Samson Reed also hail from Kahuku.
“Wayne’s in my ward. He went to Punahou, but I still cheered for him. At Laie Park, he played with my older brother, Pesa, and Samson is there, too,” Lefau said. “And Uncle Mark is there, which is big. One of my older cousins, TJ (Tito), lives there, too. He’s in the Army.”
Tito has worked out with his young cousin before. With all the talent within the bloodline — including Kahuku’s current all-state defensive lineman Zion Ah You — Tito has high expectations of Lefau.
“That’s all Liona. He’s one of the more gifted ones in our family. I always believed in them. They’re all good kids and they’re all hungry, just as much as I was,” said Tito, a former Kahuku linebacker. “Liona is a silent killer. He’s got years to build up on his frame, and he’s got pretty good instincts, killer instincts. Quick, fast, and he’s smooth and fluid even as a sophomore. He’s way faster than I was at that age, quick enough to cover and hunt somebody downfield. If his coaches need him to blitz off the edge, he has the technique.”
Te‘o coaches at JSerra in addition to Stronghouse. His mother and Lefau’s mother are sisters.
“He’s a really hard worker. Our training is an everyday thing, and he was there every day ready to work hard. There’s no doubt he can go far in this sport if he keeps working hard,” Te‘o said.
With Stronghouse, Lefau worked extensively on linebacker skills and explosiveness.
“He’s definitely in that mold where he can be a hybrid. He has the tools to be a hybrid and the body frame to bulk up and strictly become a middle ‘backer,” Te‘o said. “His speed and the way he plays the game is definitely like a hybrid type player.”
Lefau has a 3.6 grade-point average. He is putting in the sweat equity six days per week.
“We run every day. We lift four times a week at the Ah You’s house. I lift with my brother, Malosi, and Zion. Zion is the strongest and the biggest. I’d say I’m the fastest. Zion has the moves. And we do some D-line work, linebacker work,” he said. “Sunday is our rest day.”
Family ties might get a college program in the door, but it may not be as big an advantage as imagined.
“I don’t think it gives Virginia the edge, but Liana will make the right choice. It is kind of far, but all the schools are far from Hawaii,” Te‘o said. “He can play at any level, the SEC or whatever comes his way, and he’s going to have to make a far trip, regardless. It’s always good that someone from home is coaching there. I don’t think it gives Virginia the edge, but it doesn’t hurt.”
Lefau will likely receive many more offers, but if he doesn’t, he already has his dream school in mind.
“Utah has always been a dream school for me. I always liked the Pac-12 schools because they’re close,” he said. “I think if UH was in the Pac-12, they’d be highly considered by me and I guess other recruits. The linebacker with the Lions (Jahlani Tevai) showed you can make it from UH. That’s big, too. He got drafted in the second round.”
There is no certainty about a high school football season in Hawaii, which is tentatively slated for spring. Lefau has no plans to transfer out to play his sophomore season. He plans to continue working out with Kahuku assistant coach Sola Soliai.
“Shout out to Coach Sola and my cousin, Shiloh,” he said. “My (new year’s) resolution is to just keep it going, getting more looks from colleges, and get better.”