An incredible quintet of tournament triumphs across 2017 left Keli Leaupepe in disbelief.
Wherever he went, success was soon to follow as Leaupepe held the trophy aloft for Victoria Metropolitan, Australia, Bulleen and most recently Box Hill.
From representing the state to earning his Australian debut at the FIBA U17 Oceania Championships and picking up tournament triumphs with Bulleen and Box Hill.
Most people would be happy to pick up a single title in a calendar year… but Leaupepe’s four championship 2017 was beyond anything he could have imagined heading into the new year.
“It’s been crazy,” Leaupepe said. “States in Townsville and it was great winning that with all the boys then I was selected for the Australian team and that was even better and we won gold there in Guam.
“Classic with Bulleen and School nationals so it’s been crazy… not sure how many games it’s been but it’s been a lot – my body’s feeling it.”
Add to that his selection in the NBA Asia Pacific Team Camp as well as participating in the National Training Program and the NITP… and it’s been a phenomenally impressive season he’s put together.
“Was also asked to go to China for an NBA Nike team camp and that was also good – got the opportunity to play in the All Star team for that and I got the MVP,” Leaupepe said. “That was amazing because I was playing with all the Aussie boys like Sam Froling, Koby Stattman and all them.”
The high-flying success of Leaupepe started in Towsnville when Victorian Metropolitan came from the stratosphere after earlier losses in the tournament to eke its way into the grand final against Queensland North.
With a bit of guts and determination, they surged to take out the nail-biting 79-77 win.
“The first game we lost to NSW and that was tough, we were just adjusting to the heat as well,” Leaupepe said. “The training after that, (Vic Metro head coach) Darren (Perry) had a great talk with us where he said we know we wanted to win and we had to start getting it done, so we started winning.
“The grand final, we knew going into the game what we were up against because a lot of us played against them before in top age under-16s.
“We knew what they were like and knew they would be really tough.
“When we were getting into it we were really nervous, but I was really surprised when we won and I was really happy.”
From there it was a change of colours… in the best way possible.
Australia came calling and Leaupepe was thrilled to get his first opportunity to don the famous colours and head over to the FIBA Under 17 Oceania Championships in Guam.
Australia smashed everyone in its path as the title went to them comfortably – but the honour of representing the country and taking the court as an Australian representative remains the greatest honour for Leaupepe.
“It was the best feeling ever – when I got the email and the letter I was just amazed,” Leaupepe said. “Going over there knowing you’re representing your country and pulling on the green and gold… it’s such an outstanding feeling and I’d love to do that again.
“It’s surreal – I feel like I’m starting to become a professional athlete going all over the place and have to get used to the airplanes and the different styles of play.
“In China they were a lot different with better shooting and they were all massive… but in Guam there were a lot shorter players who were good on the dribble.”
The Medibank National Junior Classic gave him his first taste of success with his mates in the local ranks and it primed him for the finale. Champions Cup then the big one – the School Champs.
He capped off his playing year the way he came into it – stand and deliver in the pressure moments.
With a monster 35-point tally to sign off 2017 in Box Hill’s 87-71 triumph over Lake Ginninderra in the Australian School Championships, backing up their Victorian Champion’s Cup triumph earlier in the year.
“Going in I knew it was going to be tough – it started off with us playing pretty good,” Leaupepe said. “Our style of play was very free flowing and we just take the game as it comes.
“Whoever is matching up on us we just tend to exploit the weaknesses.
“We versed Lake G previously and I didn’t play good at all – I think I had two points and five fouls – so I knew I couldn’t play like that again in front of everyone.
“I used that as fuel.
“The next game was against Newington and I was so angry with myself that I started with a big dunk and I knew I was back.
“The semi-final was when I got my touch back – posting up, hitting a few threes – and in the grand final I took a few shots and they were going in so I just kept at it.”
He’s particularly exciting to watch because you don’t know which Leaupepe will show up each game.
The hard-edged rebounding force that attacks the ring and loves to dunk over everyone… or the tactician passing on the periphery or draining threes for fun.
It’s a skillset not many can claim and Leaupepe loves to take advantage of that inside-outside duality.
“I’m think I’m pretty unique- I’m sure I’m like an undersized power forward,” Leaupepe said. “I look up to players like Charles Barkley – basically if I have a bigger guy on me I can hit a few shots but if the guys start playing up I can drive right past them.
“Also if I have a bit of a smaller player I can just back them down in the post.”
But talent alone doesn’t get you into the arena. Hard work is the ticket to the spotlight and Leaupepe puts in at practice day-in, day-out.
Without that work, he could not have achieved as much and he knows any future success has to be driven from the same place.
“The work I’ve put in… a lot comes from that,” Leaupepe said. “It’s definitely been the best year of my life.
“It has to be intense – I have to be putting up shots every day.
“I’ve been going to the school gym every day and getting reps up but the trainings and NPP and the camps and I’ve got to do my stuff at home as well just to keep up with everyone.
“There’s always going to be someone working and I want to be one of the best so I have to put in a lot of work.”
While 2017 was extraordinary, Leaupepe isn’t slowing down. Sights are set just as high for 2018 as the Victorian powerhouse wants to make it back-to-back years to remember, starting with his selection in the Victorian under-20 men’s team heading to Gosford in February.
“I’ll be bottom age going into that and I want to make my name even bigger obviously, so I hope I play very well and hope we get the gold,” Leaupepe said. “Kick it off with a state gold medal and take it on from there, see if I get more opportunities with Australia and just take that on and go as far as I can.”
If a year like that only serves to stoke the fire and achieve even more… you know you’re in the right head space. Who knows what 2018 will bring for Keli Leaupepe but we can’t wait to see it unfold.