It may have taken slightly longer than anticipated for Ella Tofaeono to reach her goal of playing high-major college basketball, but after three seasons in the junior college system at Midland College in Texas, the Sydneysider recently committed to Texas A&M.
Not many players get the chance to play for their dream program, but Tofaeono will suit up for one of the teams she has had her eye on since high school.
“Playing Big 12 or SEC was one of my dreams, especially coming into junior college knowing that could be the reality for me if I had a great two years here,” Tofaeono revealed. “And so, it’s the level I’ve wanted to play at, I want to compete with the best. I set criteria for my coach my freshman year, like ‘These are the schools I’d love to potentially go to,’ and I’m pretty sure A&M was on that list.”
It certainly took longer than originally envisaged for the NJCAA All-American to reach her desired level, though. Injury forced Tofaeono to red shirt her second season, obliging her to make a tough decision: to play her red shirt sophomore year at Midland, or make the jump to NCAA Division I. Eventually, Tofaeono chose to return to Midland and set herself up for the best possible chance at future success.
“What was more important at the time was my mental psyche, and me physically getting back to being comfortable in my own body. So, considering I’m in one of the best junior college conferences, and still going to be competing at a high level, I think knowing what coaching staff I was going to come back to and team and the environment I was in, I was in a very supportive and encouraging environment.
“I just don’t think I was ready at the time to move on, I think I had unfinished business. I wanted to come back and accomplish a lot of the things I wanted to accomplish last year. I had two great options. I think the other option was very unclear, moving onto Division I. I think that’s more something that strokes the ego than doing what’s best for you. So, I think for me personally, the best thing for me to do was come back to Midland, just knowing that it was familiar."
It turned out to be a fantastic decision.
The level of Division I programs that showed interest in the Penrith junior skyrocketed, with a number of high-major schools from various parts of the nation contacting Tofaeono. Returning to the court reinvigorated after a lengthy injury layoff, the Midland star posted 14.6 points and 10.6 rebounds in just 24 minutes per game, shooting 60% from the field in the process.
“It actually brought in schools that I never thought I could get recruited by. Also, I just really enjoyed playing basketball this year. I mean, I think you kind of lose sight of why you play basketball, and this year I wholeheartedly enjoyed it because I enjoyed my team. Of course every team’s going to have their ups and their downs, but this team was great for me to come back into and fall in love with the game again.
“Minnesota and A&M were my top two, 100%. And BYU rode the wave the whole entire time. And I don’t really know of too many other schools; there was a time where the coach at Louisville called me. It was more of an interest, and by then I was kind of ready to make my decision. I just knew that as soon as A&M came in, that’s definitely where I wanted to be and where I wanted to go.
“Things are run a bit differently at my college, just in the sense that our coaches take care of it, and then we kind of start recruiting once our season is over. I didn’t really know about my options during the year, I mean I touched base with some of them, but the storm kind of came in after my season was done.”
That point of difference in the recruiting process at Midland meant that Tofaeono wasn’t in contact with coaches quite as much as some other players may have been. However, with things shutting down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the slowdown in proceedings actually helped the newest Aggie make her decision.
“I was able to get to know the coaches, just in the time that I missed out through the year. I would’ve loved to have been speaking throughout the year, but I think this time has given me time to speak to them on a weekly basis and build that relationship, kind of similar to what I’ve done with my coaches here at Midland.
“Even though I wasn’t able to get my five visits in, and see the other campuses and compare, in a way, it kind of made my decision a little bit easier. I feel like if I had gone to each school for a visit, there wouldn’t have been as much clarity, because I think everyone has great facilities to offer. But A&M definitely looked out for me.
“I lost a couple of options last year just because I got hurt, but then this year I had a great year and I had a great team. So, I think everything happens for a reason, and I don’t regret my decision to come back to Midland whatsoever, at all.”
Having immersed herself in the Texan culture for three years, Tofaeono has found a real home in the Lone Star State. Having taken to life in Texas like a duck to water (not that you’d find a lot of the wet stuff in Midland), it was little surprise that she chose College Station as her destination.
“I think I’m a Texan girl at heart. People here are very down-to-earth and very hospitable, and I’ve just heard great things about College Station being a college town. Quotes about the Aggie way, and how Aggies take care of each other, and I just think that hits me personally. I think it’s really important for people to be good people off court, and that’s definitely the vibe I got from A&M.”
However, it wasn’t just about the vibe coming from Texas A&M. Head Coach and 2011 National Champion Gary Blair is a legend of the game – just ask Ella herself, who has been studying his teams since her time playing junior basketball in the tin shed at Penrith Valley Regional Sports Centre.
“So, the first phone call I had with him, that’s when he offered me. But it was the second phone call that was really the deal-maker. He was just explaining what role I can play in the team and his program, and he was asking me great questions. That’s when you know you’ve got a coach that’s been around for a long time. There was definitely some difference in the recruiting and how he recruits his players.
“But I think he’s just genuinely a nice man too, and that was really important for me. In my eyes, he’s a celebrity to me, but he’s still Coach Blair at the same time. It’s not every day that you can say ‘Wow, I just got a phone call from Gary Blair,’ and not only that, there’s not many girls that can say they received a scholarship from him. So, to get that, was pretty overwhelming. I think he sits at the same calibre as Kim Mulkey and Vic Schaefer. He’s been in the business for so long, he’s very well-respected.”
“I watched Gary Blair on TV for a long time, watched YouTube clips, and the fact he gets to be my coach now is just…it’s a dream come true, honestly, that’s the best way to put it.”
Playing in one of the nation’s top conferences for a legendary head coach is a great way to spend the next two years, but Tofaeono is playing the long game. With both academics and basketball high priorities, the decision to commit to Texas A&M makes more and more sense.
“The style of play was really important for me. I would watch clips of the junior college posts that they would bring in, like (former WNBA player) Danielle Adams, and there was a (Midland) Lady Chap, Achiri Ade, and she went there and she said she had a great experience.
“Also, the communications program there is impeccable. That’s what I’m majoring in, and just knowing that this school’s going to set me up for life was really important. That was the deciding factor, you know, what’s going to set me up for life after I graduate, whether it’s basketball-wise or whether it’s academically.”
“I said to myself ‘I’m going to earn it’ and that was another thing at Texas A&M. I’m going to have to compete for a spot. Like, looking at the roster, it’s time to go to work. That’s exactly what I need. I’m going to be going up against some really great kids, and if you want to be the best, you have to compete with the best, and that’s exactly what I needed.”
However, Tofaeono isn’t just doing this for herself. One mention of the word ‘family’, and her entire mood changes. There are a lot of people that have helped her get to this point, and she is determined to make sure their contributions aren’t wasted.
“My family is the driving force, and not even just my blood relatives. My family encompasses my Texas family, and then also my family back in Australia. That’s why I can wake up every day and be like ‘ok, I’m going to go put some work in,’ or ‘I’m going to go rehab’, or ‘I’m going to be a good teammate’.
“My family encompasses my coaches too, my assistant coach Ginger Gatliff, she’s been pushing me to be the best that I can be, and she’s been helping me a lot with my mental battles. So, she’s a huge factor, she’s encouraged me to evolve as a player and a person.
“This means a lot to my family. So, going into the SEC, I think it’s great that I get a clean slate, not to reinvent myself, but to build off what I already have, and I think I’m just going to go in and work extremely hard, knowing that this is a great stepping stone for me and my career. Just everything that my family’s been through and the support that I receive from them. It’s impossible for me not to be successful with the amount of support I get. I just think you can’t go wrong with family.”
Texas A&M’s College Station campus reported an enrolment of over 64,000 students last year. Looks like that family’s about to get a whole lot bigger.