Speed, strength and desire.
These are the core traits that make up an elite athlete. Menlo-Atherton senior Noa Ngalu, the Daily Journal Boys Athlete of the Year, certainly checks all three boxes.
“Just his explosiveness, his power but also his effort,” said Adhir Ravipati, who served as M-A’s football head coach the past four seasons. “He has such a motor … and he’s just a kid who loves to play.”
Ngalu helped make M-A history as the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division Most Valuable Player on the gridiron with the Bears marching to the program’s first-ever state championship. But, despite committing to play football at University of Washington, he didn’t stop there, continuing on to win PAL double silver as a thrower with the M-A track and field team.
Now, he’s in a unique position. Reporting to his first official collegiate practice Monday in Seattle with the Huskies, he was one of approximately 30 freshmen to suit up. Among that group was another recent M-A graduate, Daniel Heimuli, who was named the Daily Journal Football Player of the Year in the fall.
“Those guys ended up growing into brothers in their four years at M-A,” Ravipati said. “… So, it’s definitely special for me to see them go on, and take what they learned at M-A and take it to college.”
And both have next-level potential. Ngalu started dreaming of playing in the NFL as a little boy. Hailing from East Palo Alto, he’d get amped up watching games on television.
“Growing up as a kid in EPA, my family and I used to always watch the NFL … and I always wanted to be an NFL player ever since I was 7 years old,” Ngalu said.
Football would become the second sport on his itinerary at that young age though. Rugby was the first, as he started playing at age 6 for the East Palo Alto Razorbacks. It was on the rugby pitch the stout and aggressive Ngalu discovered a true passion for being able to take over a game — as a ball handler.
“I miss rugby a lot,” Ngalu said. “Everybody gets the ball in rugby, even the big boys.”
When Ngalu arrived at M-A in 2015, that’s precisely how his football career started. Having weighed as much as 260 pounds previous to high school, Ngalu dropped to 230 pounds as a freshman and took to the running back position with the junior-varsity team.
While he developed as a JV freshman, however, he served as a two-way player and found his niche as an interior defensive lineman. The speed was there, sure, but in dropping his weight to 230 pounds, he was already keen on adding muscle mass. And it quickly became apparent to Ravipati that Ngalu going to be a game-changer someday soon.
“I think that was pretty apparent right away,” Ravipati said. “When he showed up as a freshman, he didn’t look like a freshman.”
Come his senior year, Ngalu was as fine an athletic specimen as a lineman could be. He had long since grown out of the backfield, instead progressing into a two-way lineman that rarely took a down off. He grew into a 6-2, 280-pound force who dominated the defensive front as a nose guard to such a degree, M-A would often rely on a three-man front and still give opposing offensive lines fits.
Ngalu ranked fifth on the Bears, and first among defensive linemen, with 56 tackles. He also led the team with seven sacks. And he also got three chances to rush the ball out of the backfield, though his shining moment as a ball handler came Aug. 31 in a 28-21 win over Mitty, scooping up a fumble and returning it 65 yards for a touchdown.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it was real,” Ngalu said. “Right when I looked down and saw the ball in my hands, I didn’t think it was real. It was kind of a surreal moment.”
The most epic celebrations came in the postseason, though. M-A cruised to a PAL Bay Division championship in the regular season, then claimed both the Central Coast Section Open Division I championship with a 33-28 win over Wilcox, and a CIF Division 3-AA State Championship Bowl triumph with a 21-7 win over Lincoln-San Diego.
“To be honest, that was one of the best accomplishments I had my whole life,” Ngalu said. “Winning that state title, making my community proud, being the first in M-A history to win, that was really big.”
M-A celebrated the program’s first-ever state title with a championship parade through downtown Atherton. But that’s about all the celebration Ngalu allowed himself as he quickly transitioned to the spring track and field season.
As a junior in 2018, Ngalu missed the CCS cut in both shot put and discus. And he returned as a man on a mission as a senior, said Alan Perry, track and field head coach at M-A.
“Talking to Noa, he said he wanted to redeem himself … and he stepped up and got better with himself this year,” Perry said.
Ngalu qualified for CCS in both events. He took PAL silver in each the shot and discus, finishing behind teammate and gold medalist Songi Eke in the disc. In the CCS trials, though, he faired better than Eke, qualifying for the finals with the 10th best throw at 141 feet, 4 inches.
His chances to compete for a CCS medal were looking good, considering he recorded the fourth-best discus throw of the season throughout CCS of 159-7, a personal record he produced April 10 at a dual meet against Aragon.
“Where he is right now (as a thrower), he could probably walk on to a lot of the next-level Division I programs,” Perry said.
Reaching the state championships in a second sport wasn’t meant to be for Ngalu, however, but not because of his performance in the pit. No, what prevented the senior from advancing was his absence from the CCS finals, which he missed because he got stuck in traffic en route to Gilroy and missed the start time.
Still, despite some regrets, it was an epic senior season for Ngalu.
“I’m very satisfied with it,” Ngalu said. “I wish I could have gone to state with track. But I had a great year overall.”