In a year that has been full of many challenges and uncertainties, one thing fans can get excited about is the kickoff of the LMU men's basketball season. With a new coach in place, as well as key players returning from injury, the program has all the pieces necessary to make an unforgettable run.
But perhaps one of the pieces needed to win it all this year is returning sophomore forward Keli Leaupepe.
Leaupepe, who is a native of Melbourne, Australia, grew up in a single-parent household. From an early age, he took on playing basketball, which led him to many different places around the country.
At the start of his freshman year of high school, Leaupepe was asked to join Box Hill Senior Secondary College, where NBA star Ben Simmons went.
It is known as one of the elite basketball schools in the nation. There, Leaupepe met coach Kevin Goorjian, who had a friendship with former LMU head coach Mike Dunlap.
After Leaupepe played in some national championship games for Australia and faced LMU during the team's foreign tour in Melbourne of 2018, LMU expressed interest in Leaupepe, who recalls the conversation he had with the L.A. University.
“I spoke to them a few times on WhatsApp and stuff like that,” Leaupepe said. “I actually committed before I even visited because I just really liked it. I liked the food, the view, the people sounded really nice and so I committed, came on a visit and then I ended up here.”
Leaupepe was excited to embark on his journey into the states and play at the collegiate level. In his freshman campaign, Leaupepe surely exceeded expectations. The 6’6" forward immediately put his offensive arsenal on display, showcasing his unique basketball skill set.
Leaupepe was excellent in the post and at grabbing rebounds as he finished with third-most on the team. A coach’s dream, Leaupepe was a true definition of a stretch four who could also knock down the mid-range and three at a high clip.
In the first round of the conference tournament last year against University of San Diego, Leaupepe proved why LMU brought him in. In his biggest and most important game of his career, Leaupepe recorded his first double-double, getting whatever he wanted down low and at the free-throw line where he went 13-13.
Leaupepe credits his experiences at Box Hill Senior Secondary for the memorable performance and season he had.
“Back home, our high school team won the national championship,” Leaupepe said. “So we were the best high school in Australia. I was playing alongside some really good players and we had three national guys playing at one time too. So we were getting some really good games in. For club teams, I was playing against guys over 30 years old, so I think that really prepared me well for college.”
While Leaupepe was thrilled to have ended on such a high note, he’s even more excited to begin the new season. After a long time off due to the pandemic, the Australia native is ready to get back on the court with his teammates.
Starting Wednesday with the season opener, the team will have back Dameane Douglas and Mattias Markusson. As they were out last year, Leaupepe admitted the importance of them playing again to help him reach his goals and become a better player.
“It's going to help a lot because they are great players,” Leaupepe said. “They can score it, they can pass it and they will make it easier to spread the floor for guys like me and get easy baskets. Even if one of us isn’t having the best night on the court, we always know one of those guys are going to be doing well and getting their numbers."
As the season arrives, Leaupepe is confident that the team can go all the way this year. There is no denying that he will again play an essential role in the team’s success. He's proved himself to be a big-time player, and the sky is the limit for his potential.
With COVID-19 hitting shortly after the team's tough loss in the second round of the playoffs, it’s the time off and away from the game that has allowed Leaupepe to reflect on his journey as he prepares for the first game of his second year.
Leaupepe laughs remembering what he previously thought of his new home as an incoming freshman.
“I honestly really didn’t know what to expect coming to LMU,” Leaupepe said. "Obviously in the movies and stuff you see all the crazy frats, so I obviously didn’t really expect anything. When I came here though, I loved it right away. The location, walking around, having our own dorms and stuff, having some of my teammates in the rooms with me last year. I've been enjoying it, I really like college a lot.”
Coming to a new school and adapting to a different environment isn’t easy for a lot of people, but Leaupepe acclimated well and loves being in the states.
Though he realizes his talent and God-given basketball ability brought him to LMU, he reminds himself that none of this would have been possible without the support of his family and friends who have guided him on his path every step of the way.
“They’ve supported me a lot,” Leaupepe said. “My mom, my grandma and auntie came last year around the same time to move me in to my place. And even just on the phone now, we have been messaging each other, FaceTiming, so that’s helped a lot with my homesickness. Overall, it’s just been great to have people who believe in me and want to see me achieve my goals and dreams."
LMU basketball will have a lot to prove this upcoming season in a competitive West Coast Conference. Guys that are coming back off injury will have to re-establish themselves again to get back to where they once were. However, Leaupepe has been there, and the role he plays this season may be exactly what the program needs to win a title and return to glory.