SAN MATEO -- Serra's Hamilton Anoa'i was never at full strength the entire season. Yet he still made such a powerful impression on league coaches that he was named co-player of the year in the West Catholic Athletic League with Archbishop Mitty's Chandler Ramirez.
Anoa'i is close to full strength now and will lead Serra into the Northern California Division I regional championship bowl game against Del Oro at San Jose City College on Friday night.
"I'm probably about 95 percent,'' Anoa'i said. "I'm a little banged up but can play through it.''
Anoa'i wasn't ready to play at the start of the season while recovering from surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He didn't play in Serra's season opener against De La Salle, then was limited to offense once he returned to action in Week 2 against Encinal.
He made an impact playing wide receiver and tight end in Serra's new spread offense, catching a team-high 26 passes for 516 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he didn't play on defense the first half of the season.
And it was as a defensive player that the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Anoa'i had made his reputation.
"I like both, but I probably prefer defense,'' Anoa'i said. "Defense wins championships. I feel more free on defense to fly around. On defense you're the one doing the hitting, not getting hit.''
Back when Anoa'i was a sophomore in his first year on the varsity, Serra coach Patrick Walsh described him as a future Pac-12 defensive back.
But that was before he suffered the torn ACL in the fourth game of his junior season against Mitty.
"Ever since I got hurt, I've been very motivated to get back on the field and contribute to the team,'' Anoa'i said.
Now he'll get a chance to contribute in a big way Friday. A Serra win over Del Oro will send the Padres to the state championship game. "He's probably our biggest factor on our team," running back Kava Cassidy said of Anoa'i. "Skill-wise, he's probably the best player on the team -- and he's a captain, too."