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The University of Hawai’i beach volleyball program is steeped in the aloha spirit, infused from the culture of Hawai’i itself.
“Especially for a guy from Minnesota,” fifth-year Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall admitted. “I didn’t know anything about that, people are like, ‘How does a kid that grew up in Minnesota playing ice hockey, why are you the beach volleyball coach in Hawai’i?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. I got lucky.’
“It’s a really special place, and the state itself really pushes our culture as a team. We represent more than just ourselves, it’s our teams, it’s our families, it’s our program, our department, and it’s the state. That’s rare for anybody here. They don’t get it like we do. So for us, we kind of carry that torch, and I’m proud of it. We celebrate it, and it’s worked for us.”
Hawai’i, currently 18-7 in duals and in the midst of a two-week break from competition, has been one of the top programs since the inception of college beach volleyball, compiling an overall record of 138-44 since 2012. The Sandbows have reached the NCAA tournament all three years, finishing fourth in 2016 and third the past two seasons. In 2018, Hawai’i finished 37-5 in duals with three losses to eventual NCAA-champion UCLA and two to runner-up Florida State.
Hall, as he said, is from Minnesota. He played at Pacific and played on the AVP tour for four seasons. His resume includes spending four seasons as an assistant men’s coach at Hawai’i and then was an assistant with the women’s program.
So he’s pretty well versed in aloha by now.
“We’re always trying to play with aloha,” Hall said. “We talk about it a lot. We had a tournament at the beginning of the year, the Duke Kahanamoku, and we were paying homage to someone that was a great ambassador of aloha. He played things the right way, in that you respect your opponent by working as hard as you can to beat them, and then you shake their hand and look them in the eye.”
Hall, whose Hawai’i team is ranked sixth in the AVCA Poll again this week, said that sometimes that message is lost on his new players.
“It’s part of the culture of the island that we live on or the state that we live in, and it’s not just coming from us, it’s coming from every auntie, uncle, professor, teacher, grocery store clerk, everybody there who lives aloha,” Hall said. “It’s truly special, and it’s something I tell people, ‘You come here, it’ll change your life.’
“And it truly does. I think that’s part of our culture. Being Hawai’ian, being part of the Hawai’ian culture, we do cultural things in Hawai’i, learn about the history of the Hawai’ian people, that’s a really special thing.”
He’s also fortunate to have a strong staff that includes assistant Evan Silberstein and volunteer Danny Alvarez, who was with then head coach Scott Wong when Hawai’i started the program.
“I think I have the best coaching staff in the country,” Hall said. “It’s really unique to be able to work with two really good friends … I’ve known Danny for years, we’ve played tournaments together and against each other at the Outrigger, so he’s a friend of mine.
“Evan Silberstein, I’ve known him for 25 years. We played together in San Diego, South Mission Beach when we were training together, and we played in a few events together.”
And they have a music bond.
“We’re both (Grateful) Deadheads, so we went to a few shows together. He’s lived with me and my family before he was even on staff. He loved to talk volley, so when I got the position, it was a pretty easy decision for me who I wanted for that.”
Silberstein, who was an attorney, was living and coaching in the San Francisco area.
“He decided that he didn’t want to do any lawyering, he wanted to be a volleyball coach,” Hall said.
“He came back, slept on my couch for six months, got paid very little, but it’s a unique staff where my volunteer runs practices. I do not run practices. (Danny) is really good at it. I let him do that because when I was coaching indoor, I wasn’t at all of the practices and I didn’t want to be an in-and-out kind of coach. So I let him run practices, and it worked, and I didn’t want to change it.
“Evan does 99 percent of the other work.”
“He’s a great leader,” Alvarez said of Hall. “He sets the tone for what we want to do, and allows Evan and I to do what we do well. He’s a perfect leader in that he recognizes our players’ strengths, he allows them to perform their strengths, and he’s a fabulous coach.
“He’s been coaching for over 20-something years in club, and men’s and women’s. He played a lot of beach. He’s a great environment to be under, it’s a relaxed environment, and the three of us are very competitive, so it’s great, but it’s great to be in an environment where you can be yourself and not stressed about someone putting a ton of pressure on you.”
They’ve been together for five years.
“I don’t see a change for a very long time. Danny was raised here, his wife is from here, Evan just bought a home, so he’s not going anywhere, and I am never leaving Hawai’i. If I get fired, or I lose my job, I’ll do something else and stay in Hawai’i with my two daughters (Dylan Makela and Devon Hana) and raise them there.”
This year’s Hawai’i squad has taken some lumps, falling to No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 USC, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 LSU, No. 5 Pepperdine, and No. 7 Cal Poly.
“It’s a little bit of veterans, it’s a little bit of newbies sprinkled all together,” Hall said. “We call it a mixed plate, that’s Hawai’ian style. We don’t have as much experience out there as we’ve had in the past, so we have some younger players and transfers that have to emerge, and that’s been fun.
“I like this team, I think we have the chance to win it all, but we are certainly not a finished product at this point.”
The Rainbows’ top pair is juniors Amy Ozee and Emily Maglio. Ozee, 6-foot-1, hails from nearby Maui, while the 6-3 Maglio is Canadian, having trained with the Canadian indoor national team last summer. She was on the AVCA indoors second All-American team. They’re 12-4 playing No. 1.
“She will be the best blocker in the world,” Alvarez said of Maglio. “When I first saw her come out, I told the assistant at the time, Michelle Myer, ‘She’s going to be on the Canadian national team for beach at some point.’ Now she’s on the indoor national team, and I talked to her a little about beach, and she said, let me put in a couple of years indoor, and then maybe later.
“She is the most athletic and best blocking kid I’ve ever seen. She’s like (Phil) Dalhausser for the women’s game. She’s that good.”
Julia Scoles and Ari Homayun are 12-3 at No. 2 and 7-1 when playing No. 3. Scoles was an indoors All-American at North Carolina and has retired from indoors.
“She wants to be a professional on the beach, so she came to Hawai’i. We’re stoked, she probably has the heaviest arm on the whole beach,” Hall said. “She plays like an indoor player, she’ll take big swings at 15 feet off the net with power. Great kid, hungry to learn, an amazing athlete.”
Scoles acknowledges that it’s been a tough transition.
“The biggest adjustment was taking the skills that I learned in indoor and applying them in a different way on the beach,” Scoles said. “All the basic skill sets are pretty similar, but they’re utilized in such different ways, I’m still wrapping my head around that. Also, pulling,” Scoles said with a laugh. “Definitely pulling has been a challenge.”
Homayun, a 5-7 defender from Southern California, is a four-year starter for Hawai’i and is the school’s all-time wins leader.
“Ari’s the number one team person,” Alvarez said. “She’s the perfect partner. Every time we’ve put someone with her, whether it was Hannah Zapp, Carly Kan, Hannah Rooks, or Amy Ozee, she is just the perfect partner. She’ll pass perfectly, set perfectly, help be the coach on the court, she’s the perfect kid to coach because she’ll do anything you say, and then she’ll be the coach on the court. She really makes other people want to play with her because she makes you look good and feel good.”
Morgan Martin, a junior from Mission Viejo, Calif., and Pani Napoleon, a redshirt freshman from Bonita, Calif., represent the Sandbows at No. 3. Martin has played extensively at the Nos. 1 and 2 positions, while Napoleon’s experience has been at the No. 4 slot. The pair has run up a 16-0 record.
Martin is a 6-1 blocker who won a team-high 37 matches in 2018, as well as being an FIVB U17 world champion with Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer, not only a star indoors but quite a force on the beach.
Alvarez sums up Martin in one word.
“Tenacity. She had shoulder problems last year, she played through it the whole season, and had shoulder surgery this summer, and played the whole fall left-handed, and was our second-best player left handed,” Alvarez said. “Just an unbelievably tenacious and furious competitor that just loves volley.”
“You can’t compare Morgan Martin to anyone else in the world,” adds teammate Ari Homayun, “because Morgan Martin is so completely herself in this world. Something that I love about her is that she is completely true to herself and who she is, and her love of volleyball is amazing. She’s the first person on the court and the last person to leave. She’s always working, she’s always trying to get better, she had shoulder surgery and she’s right back at it playing at the one doing what she does best, which is being a dominant threat every time she steps on the court.”
Napoleon, who competed for the 692 Beach club, is benefiting from Martin’s experience in duals, picking up a Big West Pair of the Week nod.
The No. 4 pair is Hi’ilawe Huddleston and Kylin Loker. Huddleston, a 5-9 fifth-year senior with plans for med school, has taken the 6-0 true freshman Loker under her wing.
“Kylin Loker is an accomplished juniors player,” Hall said, “She played with the Tamarack club for Andrew (Bennett). It’s a great family, she committed to us when she was 14-15 years old. She’s been waiting for this opportunity. She’s a true freshman in the lineup. For us that’s a big deal. She has power, she can play both at the net and in the backcourt, at some point she’ll probably split and play defense for us, she’s really got a good hand for the ball.
“The theme of our latest pairings is putting an established veteran with a younger player,” Hall said. They’re a growing pair, I think they’ll get better and challenge some higher pairs in our lineup. It’s hard for a true freshman to block full-time, but it’s fun to watch them play and improve.”
The No. 5 pair is Paige Dreeuws, a 5-9 sophomore from San Marcos, Calif., with Sofia Russo, a 6-0 freshman from Cherry Hill, N.J.
Russo, whose parents are Swedish and speak Swedish at home, was valedictorian of Cherry Hill High and is a walk-on for UH.
“It’s a really unique situation,” Hall said, “to pluck a kid from New Jersey.”
All of the Hawai’i players will have to deal with two things: Players will be under the microscope on the volleyball-crazy island, and a lot of flights.
There are no professional sports on the island, so there is an increased awareness of college sports. Hawai’i’s indoor men’s and women’s teams draw very well, posting some of the highest attendance figures in the NCAA at the Stan Sheriff Center in Manoa.
“There’s nothing like it,” Hall said. “I tell people, and you can never really understand it until you’re around it, it’s a volleyball place. It’s a place that loves their volleyball, and I think part of it was, the University of Hawai’i was one of the first universities to televise their matches. It’s been broadcast on local television for 30-plus years. So kids have been exposed to it, they see it way more than normal mainlanders, and I think it’s helped.
“Everybody’s got a net set up in their backyard, every picnic has a volleyball court, people are peppering everywhere, it’s just really canny and unique. It’s something that we cherish and love. The fans know us, they’re great, knowledgeable fans, our media people cover us extensively.
“I tell kids, ‘You have to have a sense of adventure if you’re going to come here, and if you like to be anonymous this is not going to work for you. You have to be used to people knowing who you are,’ and I think it’s pretty fun for them,” Hall said. “They embrace it. It’s maybe a little bit alarming at first, but then they kind of revel in it, and enjoy it, and they get to be celebrities a little bit, and it’s kind of fun for them.”
That can’t hurt recruiting, but it’s still far from the mainland.
At 2,555 miles from the nearest NCAA program, Hawai’i athletes spend a lot of time acclimating to at least three hours of time change, and plenty of five-plus-hour flights. Hall acknowledges that it can be a challenge, but it can also contribute to team building.
“We live out in the middle of nowhere, we don’t get a lot of exposure, but that’s OK. We love what we do, we love where we live, and we love this team.
“We tend to not talk about it, I think that’s how we approach it. It’s certainly a disadvantage. The very first year we went to the AVCA (national championship in Gulf Shores, Ala.), and they had us playing at 8 o’clock in the morning. I was like, ‘That’s a six-hour difference, do you realize that it’s 2 o’clock in the morning?’ And they were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t even think about this.’
“And in the NCAA, obviously, you’re going to play based on your seeding, so for us, we are lucky that we go early.
“We usually come to the West Coast and play in the Big West championship, and then we stay. We spend a couple of days at a horse ranch of an alumni in Santa Barbara, and unplug because there’s no cell phone reception, and then we travel to Alabama. So it’s not as bad, but generally we don’t talk about it. We do have a few sleep therapy issues, we talk about not napping at certain times, we don’t use it as an excuse.
“It’s our reality. And we’re lucky, win, lose, or draw, we get to go back to one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place that absolutely loves volleyball, it’s a volleyball mecca, from the littlest keiki kids to the aunts and uncles. And that’s a privilege, and an honor, something that we love. It’s not a big deal, we get on a plane a lot, we don’t have a bus road trip ever.”
And all that enters into his recruiting.
“Sometimes that’s a concern for families and kids, but ultimately, we sell that as a positive,” Hall said. “Road trips are fun. Road trips are some of the best memories you’ll have in college. We have them, we have quite a few of them. We try to do things on the road culturally, we try to see things, we try and do things together, but traveling is the fun of any kind of athletics in a university, I think.”