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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

At least 10 Indigenous high school athletes have been named Gatorade Players of the Year for their home states this year, joining more than a half-dozen other Native students who have received the honor in years past.

Hawai’i led the way with six Indigenous athletes named Players of the Year in basketball, football, softball, soccer, track and volleyball. Other states with Indigenous athletes of the year include Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi and Nevada.

Three of the Hawai’i winners came from the Kamehameha Schools’ Kapālama High School, a private school founded in the late 1800s that focuses on providing educational opportunities for Native Hawaiian students.

“We believe our haumāna [students] are descendants of greatness,” said Wendy Erskine, a school administrator. “The fact that our athletics program produces so many Gatorade Players of the Year is a testament to the expectations our haumāna have for themselves and the support system we create to help them succeed.”

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This year’s winners join at least eight other Indigenous athletes identified by ICT as previous winners of the Gatorade State Player of the Year honors over the last 10 years, hailing from Hawai’i, Idaho, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The Gatorade Player of the Year awards, created in 1985 to honor high school athletes, recognize the nation’s best high school athletes for their accomplishments on and off the field.

“The Gatorade Player of the Year award is presented to student-athletes not only for outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character,” according to the award website.

Previous winners told ICT the recognition from the award gave them a boost in achieving their goals.

“The Gatorade Player of the Year award is a reminder that I have done some good things running and character-wise, and motivates me to keep pursuing my dreams,” said Gabe Simonsen, a two-winner of the Oklahoma Cross Country Runner of the Year for the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons.

A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, he’s now attending Oklahoma State University, where he is a member of the Cowboys’ cross country and track and field teams.

Tisha Phillips, Nez Perce, was named the 2011-2012 Idaho Girls Basketball Player of the Year after winning three state titles in Idaho for Lapwai and Lewiston high schools. She went on to play NCAA Division 1 basketball and played overseas.

“I take pride in where I come from and the accomplishments I’ve achieved,” Phillips told ICT. “Growing up, it all seemed out of reach … But I put my head down and I worked hard, and I beat the odds and got the opportunity so many others never got. Failing was never an option.”

Here are the Indigenous winners for this year identified by ICT. The list is not complete, since an athlete’s Indigeneity is generally not included in his or her biographical details.

Alaska

Stewart Erhart
State Basketball Player of the Year

Stewart Erhart, an Athabascan from Tanana, Alaska, led the West Valley Wolfpack to a 23-0 record prior to entering the state tournament this year.

Erhart, a junior, averaged 16.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.8 steals, and 2.5 assists through the 23 games, and was named the Most Valuable Player at the Palmer Elks Showdown and the Barrow Whaler Invitational.

Stewart Erhart, Athabascan, was named the Alaska Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year for 2021-2022. He was one of at least 10 Indigenous students to win State Player of the Year awards this year. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Pitka)

At the same time, he maintained a B average in the classroom and said he strives for excellent attendance, saying it helps him stay on top of his studies.

As he heads into his senior year this fall at West Valley High in Fairbanks, he is a leader on and off the court, encouraging his teammates, volunteering and serving as a mentor for young kids.

“The connection to my Native culture helps me to remain strong,” Erhart told ICT. “I lean on my family, community, Native foods, and Native songs and dance for strength. One of my core values is hard work.”

Head Coach Coltin Growden at West Valley High School said the Gatorade award provided a boost not only to Erhart but to the entire community.

“It proves to kids that you can be from a small town and still be the best high school basketball player in the state,” Growden said. “It gives young kids from his village someone to look up to.”

Erhart will start his senior year this fall, but he is already looking ahead to the future.

“My current plans are to win a state title,” he said. “It is also a goal of mine to get this award for my senior year. I am hopeful that the GPOY award will give me more exposure as a player.”

He continued, “My plans are to play basketball at a Division 1 school and my long-term goal is to play basketball overseas.”

Hawai'i

Devin Kahahawai
State Volleyball Player of the Year

One of three athletes from Kamehameha Schools’ Kapālama High School to win Gatorade Player of the Year awards this year, Devin Kahahawai led the Warriors volleyball team to a state championship.

Kahahawai, who is Native Hawaian, had 257 kills, 139 digs, 24 blocks and 14 service aces during her senior season, according to her Gatorade profile.

Devin Kahahawai, a Native Hawaian athlete who was Hawai'i's Gatorade Player of the Year for volleyball for the 2021-2022 season, holds a special Koa trophy while wearing a Haku, a special lei meant for special events in this 2022 photo. She was one of at least 10 Indigenous students to win State Player of the Year awards this year. (Photo courtesy of Devin Kahahawai)

She also brought home a bronze medal in 2021 with the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team at the World Championships in Mexico and put herself in the top 10 among high school volleyball recruits in the nation.

Her Indigenous core values help drive her success, she told ICT.

Ohana is a core value in Hawaiian culture that is simply defined as family,” she said. “When I am out competing on the court, I truly believe that the five girls around me are my sisters, and that the team we are representing is our family.”

She continued, “Lokahi is another Hawaiian core value, which means unity. As a team, we are all working together like a unit, to strive to complete our task. Which in this case would be to win our game.”

She said her coach, Kenny Patton, also played a huge role in her development.

“Not only did he train and push me to be the best athlete I could be, but also taught me many life lessons throughout the years that have helped to shape me into the person I am today,” she said.

Patton said he has worked with Kahahawai for five years.

“Devin Kahahawai … is a hard-working student athlete who epitomizes hard work, humility, and discipline,” Patton told ICT. “She is a great role model for those coming up on the islands that anything is possible with a positive mindset and consistent effort.”

Kahahawai is now headed to Texas. She signed a letter of intent to play volleyball on a scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall.

"Devin continues our tradition of great recruiting in the state of Hawaii,” Texas Coach Jerritt Elliott said in a press statement. “She brings a high-level volleyball IQ and has the ability to be an elite six-rotation player for us that can contribute in many different ways."

Anuhea Aluli
State Girls Soccer Player of the Year

Another athlete from Kapālama High School to win a Gatorade State Player of the Year award is girls soccer player Anuhea Aluli.

A senior forward, Aluli scored seven goals and passed for three assists during the season to help lead the Warriors to a Division 1 state championship.

Aluli, who is Native Hawaiian, was also named the Interscholastic League of Honolulu Offensive Player of the Year, and she volunteered on behalf of Special Olympics and environmental protection efforts, according to her profile on the Gatorade website.

She has signed a letter of intent to play soccer on scholarship at Oakland University in Michigan.

Aluli did not respond to a request for comment.

Tatum Moku
State Girls Track & Field Player of the Year

Another Kapālama athlete to win a Gatorade Player of the Year award for Hawai’i is Tatum Moku, a track and field athlete who broke the state record in pole vaulting this year to win the state Division 1 title.

She also won state titles for the 100-meter hurdles and long jump, and came in fourth in the intermediate hurdles.

It’s her second year for the Gatorade honors – she was also last year’s Girls Track & Field Player of the Year for Hawai’i, according to her Gatorade profile.

And she’s got one more shot at it. She’ll be a senior this year.

Moku did not respond to a request for comment.

Ailana Agbayani
State Softball Player of the Year

Sports run deep in Ailana Agbayani’s family.

Her father, Benny Agbayani, was an outfielder for the New York Mets and is now softball coach at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, where Ailana was a standout pitcher and shortstop this season. Her mother, Niela, was a top softball player at Waialua and the University of Hawai’i, and her sister, Aleia, is a prior Gatorade Player of the Year in softball for Hawai’i.

So it was no surprise that Agbayani, who is Native Hawaiian, was tapped as the Softball Player of the Year for Hawai’i this year, where her work helped push the ‘Iolani team to a 12-4 record and a spot in the championship series.

She’s one of two students this year from the ‘Iolani School in Honolulu to win a Gatorade State Player of the Year award.

She went 8-1 as a pitcher with 53 strikeouts and batted .491 with 21 runs scored and 24 RBI. She also volunteered for beach cleanup crews and as a youth softball instructor.

Her sister now plays softball for the University of California-Berkeley, and Ailani signed a letter of intent to play softball on scholarship for Brigham Young University.

Ailani did not respond to a request for comment.

Jovi Wahinekapu Lefotu
State Girls Basketball Player of the Year

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Another athlete from the ‘Iolani school to win Gatorade honors is Jovi Wahinekapu Lefotu, a senior guard for the girls basketball team.

Wahinekapu Lefotu, who is Native Hawaiian, led the Raiders to an 18-2 record and the Division 1 state championship, averaging 15.2 points per game and scoring 14 points with eight rebounds in the title match. She was named the state tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, according to her Gatorade profile.

Her sister, Lily Wahinekapu Lefotu, was the 2020-2021 Hawai’i Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year and now plays for California State University at Fullerton.

Jovi has also volunteered as a coach at school basketball clinics and has worked with Adopt-A-Highway and local Thanksgiving food drives. She has signed a letter of intent to play basketball on scholarship at the University of Hawai’i.

She did not respond to a request for comment.

Kainoa Carvalho
State Football Player of the Year

As a wide receiver and kick returner for the Kahuku High School Red Raiders, Kainoa Carvalho, known as Kaikai, helped lead his team to a 10-0 record and the open division state championship this year as a junior, according to his Gatorade profile.

For his senior year, he wants to win another state championship and become valedictorian.

“I want to enjoy my senior year and make the most memories while I’m in high school,” said Carvalho, a Native Hawaian who is also part Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese.

“I want to put myself out there and have fun,” he told ICT. “I want to make new friends and be the best person I can be. And of course, win a back-to-back state championship in football and go undefeated this upcoming season.”

He said Indigenous core values define athletes as they practice and compete.

Kainoa Carvalho, known as Kaikai, was named the Hawai'i Gatorate Football Player of the Year for the 2021-2022 season. A wide receiver and kick returner, he led the Kahuku High School Red Raiders to a 10-0 record and the open division state title. (Photo courtesy of Stewart Carvalho)

“As part of the Polynesian and Asian culture, family, respect, love, responsibility, competition and working hard has been instilled in me since I was young,” Carvalho said. “This was taught to me by my parents, uncles, aunties, and many others who helped raise me. A big part of the responsibility in our culture is that you never want to let your family or your family name down. Therefore, you always represent your family name and culture as best as you can and make everyone proud.”

The Polynesian culture also puts an emphasis on sports, he said.

“Sports is also a huge part within the Polynesian culture, so it almost comes naturally when I play and compete,” he said. “As a player, I am humble, but a fierce competitor, as I never ever like to lose. I know my core values have set me up to become a great athlete because of what I have been taught throughout my years.”

He said his father, Stewart Carvalho, has particularly helped him along the way.

“He works out with me, trains me, coaches me, and so much more,” he said. “Not only has he taught me to become a great athlete, but to also be a great young man.”

Stewart Carvalho said he has passed along the teachings he learned.

“Being born and raised in Hawaii and being of Hawaiian descent (Polynesian), I have always been taught two main things by my parents, grandparents, and other leaders in my life,” Stewart Carvalho said. “Those two qualities are, respect your elders and serve others.”

Idaho

Titus Yearout
State Boys Basketball Player of the Year

Titus Yearout had a year for the Idaho record books.

Titus Yearout, Nez Perce, was named the 2021-2022 Idaho Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year, one of at least 10 Indigenous athletes to win the award this year. (Photo courtesy of Titus Yearout)

The 18-year-old Nez Perce athlete became the all-time leading scorer for the Lapwai High School Wildcats in Lapwai, Idaho, and helped lead the team to back-to-back state basketball championships the last two years. He’s also the first Lapwai boys basketball player to sign with a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I school – the University of Idaho.

“Titus Yearout made history at Lapwai High School,” said Zach Eastman, Crow, the Lapwai boys varsity basketball coach and Idaho’s Coach of the Year.

“He will go down as one of the best basketball players in Idaho history,” Eastman said. “Our community is excited to watch his next chapter at University of Idaho close to home. “

Yearout also was the Idaho Hall of Fame Male Athlete of the Year for 2021, a three-time White Pine League Player of the Year, three-time First Team All-State Basketball and a six-time local prep athlete of the week.

Yearout told ICT that his Indigeneity and his beliefs have contributed to his success.

“First of all, I want to thank God (Creator) for blessing me with these talents,” Yearout said. “I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities he’s given me and the ones yet to come.”

He continued, “Being Native American gives me a sense of pride. It puts a chip on my shoulder to prove to people that Natives can pursue anything they want with hard work and faith. Being Native and practicing Native traditions definitely teaches core values that translate to sports. In hunting, it takes a lot of work to hunt the animal then get it onto the dinner table. It teaches you to finish what you start, and good will come from it.”

Yearout said he decided in his freshman year he wanted to win the Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year award.

“It’s crazy that I have accomplished it and proved that I was the top player in the state of Idaho regardless of classification,” he said. “When I got the award, I knew it was all of the countless hours of hard work and dedication that I’ve poured into this game. Whether it be early morning workouts, getting in the weight room, getting shots up at lunch, or squeezing another workout in at the end of the day, all of these hours ultimately have paid off.”

Yearout said he’s proud to represent a small school such as Lapwai.

“Growing up in Lapwai has been a blessing,” he said. “The community and the culture Lapwai holds is unmatched. I’m proud to represent my community in any way I can. And I’m thankful for basketball because it has taught me endless lessons on and off the court.”

He credits his grandparents, Jon and Rosa Yearout, for instilling in him a work ethic, both on and off the court.

“He worked hard in his young life to earn the Gatorade recognition, and in turn, this honor from Gatorade seems to have caused him to blossom more and expand his goals and dreams,” Rosa Yearout told ICT.

Yearout will continue his basketball career while working on a business degree at the University of Idaho.

“Titus Yearout is the definition of Lapwai basketball and the athletes we build,” his coach said. “Educated, strong, athletic Native men. Titus will continue to always give back to his community and have a great basketball career.”

Mississippi

Tenly Grisham
State Softball Player of the Year

Playing third base and shortstop, Tenly Grisham helped lead the Neshoba Central High School softball team to its ninth straight Class 5A state championship this year, batting .521, scoring 55 runs and stealing 45 bases.

Tenly Grisham, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, was named Mississippi's Gatorade Softball Player of the Year for 2021-2022, one of at least 10 Indigenous athletes to win the award this year. (Photo courtesy of Kendall Grisham)

And in her sixth year as lead-off hitter, she knocked in 23 runs, walked 15 times and struck out only once in 111 plate appearances, according to her Gatorade profile.

Grisham, a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, said she plays hard for her community.

“I am a direct representation of my tribe so when I practice and play, I put in 110 percent,” Grisham told ICT. “I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder pretty much because I’ve had to. I am a Native female athlete with a goal in mind to achieve, and as you know, the Native community has to work twice as hard as most simply because nothing is handed to us.”

She said she has wanted to be a college athlete since she was little.

“I was once a six-year-old Choctaw girl who made up my mind that I would play collegiate ball one day,” she said. “I feel like I have done everything in my power, with the help of my parents, to achieve this goal. At the end of the day, I want to be an inspiration to Choctaw girls just as I have had a few inspirations of my own. I just feel like when one of our tribal members succeeds, our whole tribe succeeds. It’s a win for all of us.”

She’s been honored as a Mississippi Scholar and has signed a letter of intent to play softball at the University of Mississippi. But she’s got her eye on the future, too.

“I plan to study in the dental hygiene program in hopes to attend dental school to pursue my dream of being a pediatric dentist,” she said.

Grisham is the third softball player to win the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year honors. Two previous winners, Hailey Lunderman Ellingburg and Aspen Wesley, are also citizens of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and served as role models for Grisham.

“Tenly is a great role model for young Indigenous girls,” Ellingburg told ICT. “She is making a name for herself in the sport of softball and I am very proud of her. She leads by example and gives her all in anything that she does.”

Grisham said the two players helped guide her.

“Watching them succeed in their own paths has me excited for my upcoming journey and what I hope to accomplish,” she said.

Nevada

Kutoven Stevens
State Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year

Cross-country runner Kutoven Stevens has a string of wins.

As a senior this year, he won the Class 1A-2A individual state championship with a time of 16:28, and also won the Reed Invitational, the Lowry Invitational, the Wildfire Invitational and the Truckee Invitational, according to his Gatorade profile.

And then on Aug. 14, the Yerington Paiute teen ran in the race he founded in 2021, the Remembrance Run, in honor of his great-grandfather and other Indigenous people who were forced from their homes and into Indian boarding schools.

Kutoven Stevens, Yerington Paiute, and his Coach Guadalupe Cabada, admire the four gold medals he won at the Nevada State Track Meet, breaking records in the 1600- and 3200-meter records. Stevens was named Nevada's Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year for 2021-2022, one of at least 10 Indigenous students to win the award this year.  (Photo courtesy of Gaudalupe Cabada)

The Remembrance Run traces the same 50-mile stretch between the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada, to the Yerington Paiute Reservation that his grandfather used, at age 8, to run away from the school to return home to his family.

Stevens did not respond to a request for comment, but his coach, Guadalupe Cabada, at Damonte Ranch High School, said, during his senior year, Stevens broke numerous cross-country records and set stadium records that had stood for decades.

“Every time he stepped on a course or a track you knew a record was going to fall,” Cabada said. “Ku has tremendous range and because of that, I'd argue that he is Nevada's all-time greatest and was highly ranked nationally as well.”

Cabada said Stevens plans to continue his work at the University of Oregon.

“One thing that I'm most proud of is helping Ku realize his goal of being recruited to the University of Oregon for their historic running program,” he said. “With time, dedication, hard work and a wholehearted unwavering belief, we were able to take a dream and make it a reality. Anything is possible – work smart and hard and never give up.”

Indigenous Gatorade Players of the Year
At least 18 Indigenous high school athletes have won their state’s Gatorade Player of the Year award in the past 10 years, including 10 just this year. A comprehensive list of Indigenous winners was not available, however, since an athlete’s Indigeneity is rarely included in the biographical information. Here is a list of winners identified by ICT:
2021-2022 State Winners
*Ailana Agbayani
, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’i Softball Player of the Year
*Anuhea Aluli, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’i Girls Soccer Player of the Year
*Kainoa Carvalho, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’i Football Player of the Year
*Stewart Erhart, Athabascan,Alaska Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year
*Tenly Grisham, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Mississippi Softball Player of the Year
*Devin Kahahawai, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’i Volleyball Player of the Year
*Jovi Wahinekapu Lefotu, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’I Girls Basketball Player of the Year
*Tatum Moku, Native Hawaiian, Hawai’i Girls Track and Field Player of the Year
*Kutoven Stevens, Yerington Paiute, Nevada Cross Country Runner of the Year
*Titus Yearout, Nez Perce, Idaho Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year
Previous winners include:
*Aleia Agbayani
, Native Hawaiian, won the 2018-2019 Hawai’i Softball Player of the Year Award playing for the ‘Iolani School, where her father – former New Yorks Met outfielder Benny Agbayani - is coach. Her sister, Ailana, won the Hawai’i Softball Player of the Year Award for this year. Aleia now plays softball for California State University at Fullerton and Ailani signed a letter of intent to play for Brigham Young University.
*Matthew Cornelius, Zuni Pueblo, 2021 New Mexico Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year. A left-handed pitcher and centerfielder for St. Pius X in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he led his high school team to a 15-2 record his senior season and into the Class 4A postseason tournament. He is now pitching for Pima Community College in Arizona.
*Kamaka Hepa, Native Hawaiian, has won the Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year award three times – twice in Alaska in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 and once in Oregon in 2017-2018. .He went on to attend the University of Texas before transferring to the University of Hawai’i.
*Lily Wahinekapu Lefotu, was the 2020-2021 Hawai’i Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year. She led the ‘Iolani school team to two Division 1 state titles and two Interscholastic League of Hawai’i titles, and she went on to play at California State University at Fullerton. Her sister, Jovi Wahinekapu Lefotu, is this year’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year for Hawai’i.
*Hailey Lunderman (now Ellingberg), Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, 2014-2015 State Softball Player of the year. She played softball for the University of Mississippi and is now an assistant softball coach at Blue Mountain College in Blue Mountain, Mississippi.
*Tisha Phillips, Nez Perce, 2012 Idaho Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Phillips won three state titles in high school and received a full basketball scholarship to Eastern Washington University. She now lives in Arizona.
*Gabe Simonsen, Muscokee (Creek) Nation, 2020 and 2021 Oklahoma Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year. He is attending Oklahoma State University.
*Aspen Wesley, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, was named the Mississippi Gatorade Softball Player of the Year four times from 2015- 2016 to 2018-2019 after leading the Neshoba Central High School Rockets to six consecutive 5A State Softball Championships. She is now a pitcher about to start her senior year at Mississippi State University.

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