A long time ago in a state far, far away, Nyomi Jones lived right around the corner from Chloe Malau’ulu.
Jones played travel softball with Malau’ulu and later with Chloe’s younger sister, Thessa. She hung around the Malau’ulu house, getting to know Chloe’s and Thessa’s father George when her own father, Jaymon Jones, had to work.
“Their family’s just great,” Nyomi said.
More than 10 years later, she and Chloe Malau’ulu still play softball. Each is an outfielder for a school in the Southeastern Conference: Malau’ulu at Mississippi State, Jones at rival Ole Miss.
“Of all the places, we come from West Long Beach, and then we both ended up in Mississippi,” Malau’ulu said.
They’re not the only ones. Malau’ulu forms the center of a connection between the 16 players, managers and coaches from the Bulldogs and Rebels who hail from California. As the two schools play this weekend’s SEC opening series in Oxford, that familiarity has led to friendship — and rivalry — nearly 2,000 miles away from home.
“It is really cool to be part of a very competitive nature, and it’s just crazy how we all found that competitive nature in Mississippi,” Malau’ulu said.
A small-town feel
Home to nearly 40 million people — almost 12 percent of the U.S. population — California is unsurprisingly a softball hotspot.
The sport’s elite travel teams, Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said, typically come from a few select regions, including Texas, the South and the Midwest. The Golden State — Southern California in particular — is among the best, especially since athletes can play softball year round because of mild weather.
“If you look across the country, there’s a really strong California connection on a lot of big Power Five rosters,” Ricketts said.
Mississippi State has three players — Malau’ulu and Arizona State transfers Fa Leilua and Alyssa Loze — from California. Ole Miss has a whopping 11 as well as graduate manager Falepolima Aviu, a former standout at Oklahoma.
Ricketts, also a former Sooner, is the only Californian member of the two teams who didn’t grow up in the southern part of the state. Still, as a San Jose native, she found plenty of differences when she began her time in Starkville as an assistant in 2015.
“It’s a true college town,” Ricketts said. “There’s no pro sports. You’re kind of the big show.”
She said Starkville is the kind of place where players will be recognized in the grocery store and that it offers a “small-town feel” for MSU’s athletes.
“I think it helps with a sense of belonging and acceptance for them to feel a part of not just their team but their community,” she said.
Jones and Malau’ulu also felt the difference when they came to Mississippi a year apart. Malau’ulu, a junior, said she had to find new pursuits: going to the beach was, evidently, out. She said she’s often been asked if she’s gone hunting, mud riding or fishing yet — the answer is no, but she hopes to change that.
Jones said she found more time to explore the nature around her. She was wowed by the density of trees in the Magnolia State and enjoyed seeing different types of animals and birds nearby.
“It’s cool to just walk around in nature and it be so close to you,” Jones said.
She said there’s no doubt Mississippi and California aren’t the same — but that’s exactly what she wanted.
“It’s a lot different — I can say that — but it’s a good different,” Jones said.
An automatic connection
As different as the two communities are, Malau’ulu and her family had a big part in keeping the connection.
Her father George ran the AIGA Foundation, which started out as a Christmastime softball clinic for players of Polynesian heritage. Eventually, the foundation gained exposure and grew into an annual all-star game at Bill Barber Park in Irvine.
“Everyone sees each other as cousins, so it’s just really fun to be competitive with them and just kind of feed off each other’s energy and good vibes and all that,” Malau’ulu said.
AIGA drew in many standout softball players from the area: Mary Iakopo, now a star at Texas. Dejah Mulipola at Arizona. Brianna Tautalafua at UCLA.
Aviu and Leilua were part of it, too. Through the years, they stayed in touch.
When Aviu finished her Oklahoma career and was hired at Ole Miss in July, the two made plans to meet up. In the fall, Leilua and Malau’ulu headed to Oxford for a friendly barbecue, where they met Christabell Hamilton, the wife of Rebels assistant men’s basketball coach Ronnie Hamilton.
Hamilton wanted to discuss her own Polynesian descent with the Bulldogs in attendance. Eventually, that led to an open question: “What village is your family from?”
Malau’ulu gave her answer: Fagasa, a small community of 831 people on Tutuila Island in American Samoa.
“Oh my gosh, that’s so funny,” Aviu replied. “That’s where my family is from.”
Malau’ulu called George to investigate. Aviu rang up her mother Patricia. The two reached a conclusion: They were, in fact, cousins.
“It doesn’t matter what state you’re in,” Aviu said. “You’ll find your Polynesian people.”
The roots run deep. Through Malau’ulu, Aviu, Leilua, former Mississippi State first baseman Sarai Niu and even Ricketts are related by either blood or marriage.
“It makes it fun just to kind of have those connections,” Ricketts said.
Aviu said Polynesian players take things like respect and humility seriously in softball and said they have formed a small community that thrives no matter the location.
“We grew up on all the same things,” Aviu said. “You don’t even have to talk to each other all your life or grow up with each other. Once you meet in college or whenever it is, it’s like you have that automatic connection.”
A place for everyone
Ricketts said it’s no surprise that California’s best softball players have flocked to the SEC and Mississippi in particular. With 10 teams in the NFCA/USA TODAY top 25 poll as of Tuesday — neither of which are the Bulldogs or Rebels — the league offers the best competition in the country.
“The SEC is just so tough from top to bottom,” Ricketts said. “These players really want the challenge and want the competition, and they just really enjoy how big a deal SEC softball is.”
Malau’ulu said the distance doesn’t always matter: She’s found a home in Starkville just like Jones has in Oxford.
“You know the saying: Everyone has a school,” Malau’ulu said. “There’s a place for everyone to go to. When you go there, it’s kind of like, ‘This is the place that I’m supposed to be.'”
All 14 players at both Mississippi State and Ole Miss have found their own place. Many came in together: Leilua and Loza transferred in jointly from the Sun Devils, while the Rebels feature three players from Norco High School in Southern California.
Malau’ulu said she and other veterans are available to assist younger players at Ole Miss or new staffers like Aviu in adjusting to a new place. She said she knows Rebels freshman Macey Keester from Keester’s time playing travel ball and soccer with Thessa and never minds helping her or Jones with the transition.
Still, the rivalry aspect of things remains. When the two talk on the phone or via Snapchat, Jones and Malau’ulu make sure to remind each other of the schools they’ve chosen with a “Hotty Toddy” here and a “Hail State” there.
“It’s cool to have a little friendly rivalry going on,” Jones said. “I’ll root for her, and she’ll root for me — maybe not when we’re on the field at the same time. I know for sure I want the best for her and she wants the best for me.”
Even when the two teams play this weekend’s three-game series at the Ole Miss Softball Complex, the friendship forged between the one-time neighbors and the rest of the Bulldogs and Rebels endures.
“It’s all love,” Jones said. “All love.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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