Notre Dame safety commitment Paul Moala a big-play, big-moment guy
MISHAWAKA – Rolling back toward Saint Joseph County on a long bus ride back from the first game of the season that mid-August night, the senior members of the Penn High School football team made a promise.
To themselves. To their coaches. To their teammates.
Having lost an opener, 12-7 to Valparaiso, for the first time since 2010, the Kingsmen knew what the next few months had in store. No matter how the rest of the schedule unfolded, there was a really good chance that the teams would meet again when the Class 6-A sectional playoffs started. Maybe they’d meet late. Maybe early. One way or another, the Kingsmen vowed that night 10 weeks ago that they would be a better team the second time around. They would be ready.
They are and they are.
Come Friday, Penn (8-1) opens sectional semifinal play the same way it started the regular season – with a long bus ride and visit to Viking Field in a sectional semifinal against Valparaiso (8-1). Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. eastern time for the teams that finished tied for fourth in the final state coaches’ poll.
Penn gets a second chance to leave a lasting impression in Porter County.
“We’ve improved a lot,” said do-it all senior safety Paul Moala, who used the postseason bye week to make an official visit to and then commit to nearby Notre Dame. “We’ve strived to become better from that first game. We want to show everyone the steps that we’ve taken to become a great team.”
Greatness always was there for the taking for the Kingsmen this season. Even with that early setback, there was never any panic, never any wondering. The bus ride back from Valparaiso told Moala as much.
“It was more like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be OK,’” he said.
But not right away. Penn followed an un-Penn-like performance that first week with another in the second, a pedestrian 7-0 victory over Merrillville. By Week 3, which required a 420-mile roundtrip to Birmingham, Mich., for the game against Brother Rice, Penn was back to being Penn.
The Kingsmen settled into an offensive groove behind quarterback Ryan Lynch and a healthy offensive line. The defense gave the opposition next to nothing. When big plays were there to be made, the Kingsmen made them. The result was a 38-0 victory.
It was then when Moala and his fellow seniors felt it all falling into place. The pieces fit. The rest of the regular season was sure to be a success, one that saw Penn roll off six more wins and outscore the opposition 308-59 en route to the school’s 36th Northern Indiana Conference championship.
“That’s when we knew we were going to click,” Moala said. “From that point on, we knew we were going to do well.”
Setting the Penn pace has been the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Moala. During that first meeting against Valparaiso, he scored the team’s lone touchdown on a 34-yard pass from Lynch. Moala’s made 51 tackles from his safety spot. He’s blocked two punts. He’s taken two others back for touchdowns. And two kickoffs. A little of everything from a do-everything guy.
“He delivers,” said Kingsmen coach Cory Yeoman. “He does special things when he puts his hands on the football.”
Doing so left the coaching staff in a bit of a bind. Anytime Moala’s been on the field in any capacity – offense, defense, special teams – he’s made plays. Big ones. Critical ones. When could he rest? Would he?
Moala cut back on his offensive work, but remained invested in every other area.
“It can get to a point where you play a guy too much and you get diminished returns and wear him down a little bit,” Yeoman said. “But when it’s his time to go, he can go.”
Moala does so by embracing the magnitude of the moment. Nothing ever seems too big. Take the Week 6 game at South Bend Saint Joseph. An early third-quarter touchdown gave the Indians some serious momentum. It brought the home team within 23-14 and allowed them to start thinking what it might be like to finally beat big, bad Penn. The home crowd sensed it and made some serious noise. They were in it. They felt they had a chance.
The Indians then kicked to Moala, and any thoughts of Saint Joe winning evaporated into the downtown night.
Moala made sure of it.
Fielding the kick at his own 2, Moala took time in deciding his next move. He allowed the blockers to form a wedge and then in seemingly a snap, he shifted into another gear, spun out of a would-be tackle and was off and running. Ninety-eight yards later, Moala was in the end zone and the fans in the home stands had been silenced.
Another big play had Moala’s fingerprints all over it in a 30-14 Penn win.
“It’s just mad props to my teammates,” he said. “They’re always giving me great opportunities.”
Especially on special teams. That’s where Moala really likes to make his mark. Particularly in situations like the Saint Joseph game when the other team has everything going in its favor. Until they don’t.
“I love special teams because it’s always a momentum booster, especially when the other team scores,” he said. “You get that next chance to make a big play. It’s just great.”
The next step
A three-year varsity member who’s worn three different numbers – 37, 7 and 13 - Moala received his first recruiting letter from a Division I college early in his junior year. It was from Ball State. Attend the program’s Junior Day, said the letter, and maybe he’d have a chance to earn a scholarship.
“That really excited me,” Moala said. “I’m grateful for them for giving me that first shot.”
Until then, Moala never really dreamed about having the chance to play major college football. And especially not for a school that sits barely 10 miles away from his current one. But the more he played as a junior and the more plays he made, like returning four of his seven interceptions for touchdowns and earning first team all-NIC honors, the more Moala started thinking about playing somewhere big for college.
His teammates could see it.
“A lot of the guys were telling me, ‘You’re going big. You’re going big,’” Moala said. “I never really believed them, but when I started making plays, I started thinking that this might be my ticket right here.”
Notre Dame became an possibility in June when Moala was invited to the program’s Irish Invasion summer combine. That’s where he ran a 4.46 40 and earned a scholarship offer. Nebraska and Vanderbilt also showed serious interest. So did Iowa. Utah State also was an option.
The more schools called, the less Moala came to enjoy the recruiting process. Setting his sights on getting to Lucas Oil Stadium and chasing Penn’s sixth state championship, Moala felt bogged down by the questions and comments about college.
“It’s a hassle to get through,” he said.
Penn’s sectional playoff bye week fit perfectly with Moala’s college visit schedule. He was able to spend the weekend on an official visit to Notre Dame. He got to know the program and the players and the coaching staff even better. He took in Saturday’s beat-down of Southern California. He spent time with head coach Brian Kelly. By the end of the weekend, his recruitment was over. The three-star prospect was committed to Notre Dame.
On an otherwise dreary Monday afternoon, with a steady rain falling as quickly as the temperatures outside, Moala couldn’t go more than a few steps around Penn before another round of hugs, high-fives or fist-bumps. Sometimes all of the above.
Every once in a while, Moala would tell himself, he’s going to Notre Dame. To play football for the Irish. Him. At times, it’s a lot to comprehend that he’s the first Penn player since offensive lineman Braxston Cave in 2008 to earn a scholarship to Notre Dame.
“To have this opportunity,” he said, “is a blessing.”