Peneueta felt the gravity of the event immediately upon landing in Samoa, as fans flooded the airport. It was just her second time visiting the island (she was born in Vancouver), and first time since she traveled with her father to help bury her uncle when she was 5.
“Being able to see the island and hang out with a bunch of other girls like me — being able to see everything and dive into the culture — it was just amazing and very eye-opening,” Peneueta said.
She also knew the challenge was stiff. She was just 15 playing against grown women, many who play or have played collegiate basketball. She came off the bench her first two games, playing 29 total minutes and scoring nine points to go with six rebounds.
“I knew they were going to be more skilled and more experienced,” Peneueta said. “I was trying to keep that out of my head, but keep it in mind at the same time.”
But her height — at 6-foot-2 — and tenacity on the glass and defense carved her a bigger role. She started the final three games of the tournament, averaging 11 rebounds and four points in 26 minutes per game.
“I definitely did not think I was going to play as much as I did,” she said. “It took me awhile to realize that scoring is not everything. You have to find your place on different teams. … I tried to do as much as I could outside of scoring: play solid defense, be able to shut down grown women, out-hustle them.”
It’s an experience that will only help Peneueta’s basketball game. She feels more confident now against girls her own age. She was home just a day before embarking to Vegas to pursuit more basketball opportunities.
“I’ve been playing for so long, I’ve just developed a love for the sport,” she says. “I also play volleyball and throw javelin, but I always find myself missing basketball when playing those other sports. There’s something about the game that keeps me going. I love playing when I’m on the court.”
Part of it surely has to do with the family support she receives. Her mother pushed her to play when she was younger, and then her older brothers helped craft her game. He grandparents came to all her games, and her “church family” was always offering support.
“It’s a big part of who I am,” Peneueta says.
Growing up on the island, JR knows how important the support system can be. Family values are built into the Polynesian culture, he said.
“It was just a fabric of how I grew up and how I was raised,” he explained. “Even in Samoa, the rest of the girls on her team realized she was only 15 and all automatically took on the older sister role and took her under her wing.”
That family dynamic also explains why Peneuta is considering military service when her basketball career ends, however soon or far away that is. Her grandfather served in the Navy; she’d like to serve in the Air Force.
First, there’s high school and hoops. She will enter her junior year at Heritage this fall, where she’ll again be a three-sport athlete. But she shines most on the hardwood, where she was a first-team all-league player last season. After high school, she hopes to play Division I basketball, and potentially play overseas following that.
“She’s very ambitious and she wants to do a lot of things,” her father says. “I pray and hope she’s able to accomplish everything shes sets out to do. We’re there every step of the way helping and supporting her however she needs.”
As is the rest of her extended Samoan family.