TOP CAT SOPOAGA IS A FORCE FOR COUGARS.
SANTA CLARITA - As a part-time diplomat, part-time destroyer, Isaac Sopoaga wears different hats for College of the Canyons.
The 6-foot-4 290-pound native of Samoa has already established himself as a menacing presence on COC's defensive line. Both powerful and swift, the 19-year-old sophomore, who runs a 40-yard-dash in 4.8 seconds, is a Junior College All-American candidate, according to COC coach Chuck Lyon.
But the talented defender has demonstrated the ability to do more than just wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. As one of nine Samoan players on the Cougars roster, he has also emerged as a settling influence on a team that features diverse cultural backgrounds.
``He's a steadying force for our Samoan culture, they look up to him for answers,'' Lyon said, noting his uncanny ability to resolve conflicts.
``When two guys on the field are getting into an argument, he'll just step between them and say, `That's enough','' Lyon said.
``And they'll stop.''
Sopoaga's leadership on and off the field has helped the Cougars to a 3-0 start this season.
COC is preparing for a crucial Western State Conference showdown Saturday night, when it hosts Hancock of Santa Maria.
Several Division I schools - including San Diego State and Utah - are already trying to recruit Sopoaga. But the Cougars' standout defensive lineman said that given the preference, he hopes to play at UCLA or USC.
``He's basically a freak of nature,'' said sophomore John Harrison, who is playing with Sopoaga on the Cougars defensive line for the second straight season.
``He doesn't even work out and he's the strongest guy on the team by far.
``It takes pressure off me inside having him there. If I go around the quarterback and the quarterback steps up I know Isaac will be right in front of him.''
Sopoaga, who was recruited by defensive coordinator Leon Criner, had spent his entire life in Fagasan, a small Samoan village, until he moved to Canyon Country last summer.
He is part of a great football family, and he and eight of his brothers sport No. 48 on their uniforms, which is the number their father, Lancelot Sopoaga, wore during his high school playing days.
Sopoaga said he was recruited by several universities and junior colleges in the United States, but he selected COC in part because he has many relatives in California, and because the Cougars were the first team that offered him a scholarship.
According to Lyon, Sopoaga experienced some growing pains during his freshman season, which showed up on the field and in the classroom.
A year ago Sopoaga missed two games, including the Hancock contest, as a result of a suspension he incurred when he was seen by an official hitting an opposing player - which Sopoaga said was in retaliation for a cheap shot the referee didn't see.
Sopoaga hit the opposing player in the helmet with his bare fist, knocking him to the ground. The impact of hitting a hard shell with his unpadded hand, he said was similar to a game he and his pals used to play in Samoa, in which they used to hit a coconuts with their bare fists.
``He did not have a real good freshman year,'' Lyon said. ``He didn't understand how to play the game at the intensity level that it's required to be played at college.
Lyon said he and his coaching staff told Sopoaga that he had to maintain his intensity level on each play and throughout each play.
``It's a learning process for him, the whole thing, including the move,'' Lyon said. ``He's getting better, but he's got a long way to go before he's going to be a legitimate Division I player.''
Lyon said Sopoaga arrived at COC as a raw talent but was nevertheless able to contribute, although to a lesser extent than he has this year with more polished technique.
``He didn't have technique when he got here, but when you have guys that size at this level, you can overcome a lot of mistakes,'' Lyon said.
Lyon said the biggest area of improvement in his game is his ability to play hard on every down, noting that his ``intensity level from snap to finish has improved tremendously.''
Given his size and strength, Sopoaga could be a future NFL prospect, but Lyon is concentrating on preparing him for the next step, which is reaching Division I.
Crucial to his aspirations in football, and in life, Lyon said, is his completion of an Associate of Arts degree at COC.
``He's got to get his AA degree or he's going nowhere,'' Lyon said. ``We tell him he's got to compete in the classroom like he competes on the football field and he's doing that.''
Isaac Sopoaga leads by example and accomplishment as a JC All-American candidate at undefeated College of the Canyons.
Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer