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Freshman provides example of maximizing opportunities

Down 13-0, Alabama head coach Nick Saban choose to start freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the College Football National Championship, Jan. 8. This proved to be beneficial as Tagovailoa helped the Crimson Tide come back against Georgia and throw the winning touchdown pass in overtime.

As 71,000 fans found their seats for the second half of the College Football National Championship, an unusual quiet fell, Jan. 8. Down 13-0, Alabama‘s huddle looked different. Standing in the place sophomore starter Jalen Hurts usually occupied was a freshman named Tua Tagovailoa. With his only collegiate game experience coming in garbage time, how would the freshman handle the pressure of the nation’s biggest stage? With nearly 30 million people watching, Tagovailoa proved himself capable of leading the fourth-ranked team to a stunning overtime victory with a touchdown pass.

According to, 30% of college freshmen drop out in their first year. So what separates those who excel on their own versus those overwhelmed by life? And what traits can high school students work on today to put them on the path to success?

Tagovailoa’s path to victory started long before he signed to Alabama. Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, his performance in high school caught the eye of several universities, allowing him to select where he wanted to play in college. However, signing with the Crimson Tide set him to support Jalen Hurts in the backup role, despite earning several top rankings.

Like Tagovailoa, JV boys basketball coach Clifton Jackson found himself somewhere few other freshmen do. Jackson, who later played college ball, started on varsity after his first high school game. Jackson attributes his success to learning from an older player willing to teach him the ropes.

I did make varsity as a freshman,” Jackson said. “I had to put in more work as the new guy, but what I did was I found one of the guys that was on my team which was the leader and the best player actually. I went under his wing to learn how to be a leader and how to have a work ethic and how to be the best.”

Tagovailoa graduated from the same high school (Saint Louis School in Honolulu) as current NFL QB and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who helped guide Tagovailoa into becoming a championship-worthy QB. Freshman Kyle Clem explains why he believes a mentor is crucial for success.

I certainly do think a mentor is essential because of what they can offer to you, such as advice or preparation for something you’re working on,” Clem said. “Those people have been there before so they know what’s going on before you do.”

Making connections with those with more experience helped Tagovailoa and Jackson, but there is more behind their success. A common trait among successful students is their ability to take advantage of opportunities.

Tagovailoa found a mentor in NFL QB Marcus Mariota as the two attended the same high school in Hawaii.

Carston Saelzler, ’21, joined the basketball team this year, electing not to play soccer. His large number of points and steals soon attracted varsity head coach Jon Penberthy‘s attention, who invited Saelzler to play in a varsity tournament. Saelzler says the decision to move up was easy, despite fears of failure.

It was not a difficult decision moving up to varsity,” Saelzler said. “I looked forward to the challenge that lied ahead as being the only freshman on varsity. My first league game I was so nervous. The whole day leading up to the game I was freaking out, anxiously waiting for the tip-off. I was able to move past my nervousness with the encouragement from my teammates and peers.”

Risky moves, like throwing a 41-yard pass against the number-6 ranked Georgia defense, can fail. However, some freshmen are not deterred by the threat of failure. Celeste Castaneda, ’21, who first attended FCS in eighth grade, decided to try out for worship team despite her fear of messing up onstage. Castaneda says she uses her nerves as fuel for singing with more energy.

“When I first came to tour Fresno Christian last year, my tour guide started talking about chapel,” Castaneda said. “As soon as I heard about that I wanted to join. The first time I sang I was terrified and I thought I sounded horrible. To help move past my fear, I took the butterflies I had and used it to sing louder and more passionate. I still use that method because I’m always nervous about messing up.”

Freshmen pursuing excellence defy their fears, but also tend to go against the norm. Hannah Villines, ’21, says while others tend to follow the crowd and slide through school, freshmen who stand out take their work more seriously.

I think standing out really has to do with not following the crowd and doing your own thing,” Villines said. “Not really caring what other people think but caring about your work and not procrastinating. Getting involved in the school as much as you can; I think that’s a big part of it as well.”

Professional and college athletes spend hours a day practicing, and FCS alumni and current college freshman Julian Castro says students can apply similar work ethic throughout their life. Castro played three sports each year in high school including football, soccer, basketball and tennis, wrote and edited two years for The Feather and graduated as Salutatorian.

Alabama QBs Jalen Hurts, 2, and Tagovailoa, 13, remained supportive of each other though the National Championship game, Jan 8.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a freshman in college is one that can be applied to life, sports or anything,” Castro said. “That lesson is to keep pushing and always try harder. Sometimes you only think of these things in times of extreme hardship. But even when things seem easy you need to keep pushing and always try harder. It’s how you can better yourself and the situations around you, especially if you keep God as your focus.”

The traits Tagovailoa displays, including the willingness to learn from others, the ability to maximize on opportunities and performance despite fear provide an example for freshmen locally and across the nation.

For more sports articles, check out the Campus winter sports preview. For another article, read COLUMN: Hume Lake Winter Camp reflection.

Bryce Foshee can be reached via email.

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