On a recent Saturday afternoon, in a windowless gym where the Hawaiian air was warm and filled with please-please-please hopefulness, success was defined as a pink t-shirt.
The setting was the second Hawaii Volleyball Combine for high school girls, and the players—all seeking to be noticed by the visiting college coaches—were separated by grade and shirt color. Seniors wore red; juniors were in purple; sophomores in blue. The pink t-shirt, like the one worn by junior Tai Manu-Olevao, indicated a player who already accepted a volleyball scholarship.
“This [combine] helped,” said Manu-Olevao, a 6-foot outside hitter from Honolulu’s Punahou School, President Obama’s alma mater. She attended the inaugural 2009 combine in Manoa Valley, a mile walk from the University of Hawaii’s campus, where she will enroll as a freshman in August 2012.
She said the combine “gives the college coaches an opportunity to see what Hawaii has to offer.”
In Hawaii, volleyball is as much a part of the local culture as removing footwear before entering a house. The sport is played at picnics, backyard barbecues and school recesses.
“The kids learn from the parents and old-time players,” said Dave Shoji, head coach of the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball team. “And they pass it on to their kids.”
If Hawaii universities were to have hoss elections—a Hawaiian phrase used to describe class superlatives—volleyball might be voted “Most Popular.” At the University of Hawaii-Hilo the women’s team plays to enthusiastic audiences. At UH’s main campus, in Manoa, the Rainbow Wahine regularly lead the nation in women’s volleyball attendance and all of the home matches are televised statewide. UH’s men’s team, which produced one of the world’s best players—Olympic gold medalist Clay Stanley—is enjoying a revival. In their glory days, the Warriors were rock stars, packing the 10,000-seat Stan Sheriff Center. In fact the crowds were so enthusiastic the band and cheerleaders were told they were no longer needed. The players often had to sneak out of the arena in laundry carts. Stanford’s 2010 men’s national championship team consisted of four Hawaii-raised starters.
The thing is, the popularity did not assure opportunities.
“It’s a struggle for our [high school-aged] players to get noticed,” said Luis Ramirez, director of the ASICS Rainbow Volleyball Club.
With Hawaii’s high school seasons coinciding with college schedules, it is difficult for NCAA coaches to do live scouting of the 50th state’s players. “We have a 2,500-mile disadvantage,” Ramirez said, a reference to the distance between Hawaii and the West Coast. “We have to go that far just to be seen.”
Bob Kawamura, organizer of the Hawaii combine, said local schools rarely travel to what is referred to as the U.S. mainland. The better-funded volleyball clubs might take up to three trips each year. But at about $1,500 per person—an amount that includes lodging, air and ground transportation, and meals—there are no guarantees that their matches will be scouted.
“You can’t hit all of the Hawaii schools and clubs, and you can only get [to Hawaii] once or twice a year,” Texas Tech assistant coach Don Flora said. “There is a lot of talent and athletes in Hawaii.”
Shoji, who has led Hawaii to four national championships, said there are “five to eight kids who can go to Division I every year.” He said scores more “can play Division II, Division III and NAIA.”
Two years ago, Ramirez and Kawamura decided to stage the first Hawaii-based combine for female volleyball players. For a fee of $175, players were tested in flexibility, agility, vertical jumping, blocking and hitting drills. There was a 1-hour session devoted to ball-handling drills, followed by four hours of scrimmage. Thirty college coaches attended this year’s combine.
“The format is good,” Flora said. “You see people playing out of position and in position and with new people. You get to see a player hit on the left and right, and even set. Or if they’re a middle, they have to pass and play left. It’s good to see their whole skill set.”
Menlo head coach Daniel Rasay said Hawaii clubs tend to have fewer tall players than their mainland counterparts. That leads to an emphasis on ball-control and, as a result, more long rallies.
Hannah Rooks, a sophomore from George Walton Comprehensive School in Georgia, noticed some of the difference in styles. She is a right-side hitter, a position known as an “8” in Georgia, but a “5” in Hawaii.
“There are different approaches on how to handle the ball,” Rooks said. “It’s really cool to see how people do it.”
Ramirez said the combine appeared to be successful. “There’s a big difference from having your kid pay $1,500 to be seen playing on the mainland to paying a minimal amount for the coaches to come here for the sole purpose of seeing your kid.”
Imani Wimbush, who grew up in a military family, moved from Japan to Hawaii two years ago. She started playing volleyball, joined a club team that traveled a few times to the mainland, and then attended the combine, where she touched 10’1” off a standing jump. That drew the attention of the coaches in attendance. The skill results from the combine also are available, upon request, to all college coaches.
Flora coached previously at New Mexico State.
“Last year, [current New Mexico State freshman middle blocker] Amanda Tonga came to New Mexico State because of my trip here,” Flora said. “We were able to meet her and her family a little bit more, and they could see us. Hopefully, some of these players will go to Texas Tech.”
Rooks, who has unofficially visited Penn State and Ohio State, said she also toured the University of Hawaii.
“Beautiful campus,” Rooks said. “Hawaii is definitely in the mix. Probably one of my top ones, actually.”
Originally published in March/April 2011