Wright On: Haili participation sluggish but pure

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    While junior sign-ups for boys teams are low this year for the Haili Volleyball Tournament, 22 of the 49 adult teams are male.

For most of us, the tradition was already here, a springtime celebration of the game that symbolizes what sports in Hawaii is all about.

That’s not necessarily a fact-based statement because surfers and paddlers will always point out, with good reason, that they were out there challenging waves as long as anyone can remember and that’s the true expression of Hawaiian sport and culture.

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They’re right, but there has always been a consensus that the games we play are just that, and surfing and paddling are their own category, unchallenged in lore.

But when it comes to team sports, there aren’t a lot of places that take to volleyball like we do here, and at the core of that resides the tradition of Haili, the 62-year-old tournament that involves everyone in the sport, keiki boys and girls to high school, college and senior players, without restrictions to gender or age.

It has been all-inclusive from the very beginning, back before statehood, before television used our setting for cops and robbers shows, before all of that, there was the Haili.

“It’s been something we all look forward to, from the high school kids to the older players,” said Chris Leonard, one of the most heavily-involved youth volleyball coaches on the Big Island, and a former player himself, who will somehow find time to get some matches in with his own adult league team this week. “It’s an all-Hawaii-type thing and we have placed kids in schools from DI to DII and DIII, NAIA and junior college. Volleyball here has been a big help for a lot of kids getting to college.”

Still, the world has a way of closing in and pulling people away from tradition and toward the new and different, the social media, the video games and all the rest.

This year, Lyndell Lindsey has been charting the registration for Haili Volleyball Tournament entries and she wonders where it’s all headed.

“There was a time,” she said last week, “that we would have 175-180 teams signing up, but it’s been quite a while since we had those kind of numbers. Lately, these last few years, it’s been more like 125-130, last year we had 120.

“This year, we’re looking at 110,” she said.

Before hitting the panic button, there are extenuating circumstances, starting with the decision several years ago to move boys volleyball from the fall to the spring, which meant those high school boys who used to compete on their club teams are ineligible now that their high school season is in play.

Also, this is the same week a major tournament is being held in Honolulu, cutting deeply into the number of teams that signed up from Oahu. That usually isn’t an issue, but in 2019, spring breaks across the state occur this week as well, so Haili organizers had to shift to this week on the calendar in order to have available the University of Hawaii at Hilo gym to squeeze in all the games.

The numbers are discouraging for boys and men’s teams. There are 61 juniors teams signed up, and not counting the co-ed squads, 57 of those teams are girls, while just four are boys. There are 49 adult teams entered, 27 women, 22 men.

“Volleyball is so popular here,” said Pat Engelhard, the long time coach and player who doubles as treasurer for the Haili Tournament, “I don’t see (boys’ teams) in decline, I think it’s more about shifting the season to spring and the competition from other sports.”

“Plus,” she said, “it’s very disappointing this year to see the big tournament on Oahu going against us. True, things have gone against the boys, but I don’t feel like the interest has diminished, it’s more the timing of events — and the spring season for boys volleyball — that are hurting us this year.”

Englehard has been a part of Big Island volleyball at one level or another since 1972, so you take her perspective as evidenced-based and definitive, with 47 years of observation going into it.

The larger issue for boys players here is better understood through the contextualization of opportunities out there for them beyond high school, when compared to girls volleyball players.

It’s not an uplifting picture for guys.

Volleyball is becoming a women’s sport at the collegiate level, with 325 women’s teams at the NCAA Division I level, compared to 22 men’s teams in DI. The numbers are only incrementally better at the II level, that lists 260 women’s teams and 20 men’s teams.

Division III, NAIA or junior colleges? Sure, there are those that still have men’s volleyball, but it’s not the encouraging opportunity that women players have to consider.

“I feel like it’s just part of who we are here,” Engelhard said, “volleyball is Hawaii and Hawaii is volleyball.”

It’s a fair point, we’re different here and the wrinkle that separates us from the mainland is to be appreciated. Seeing the UH-Manoa women compete at the highest levels of Division I only encourages younger players here, and let’s face it, volleyball isn’t a big thing in most places other than Nebraska on the mainland.

It’s worth noting that the level of juniors play is on the rise locally with more and more juniors teams venturing into AA competition and doing themselves proud. This year, there are three juniors teams that will compete this week in AA competition and one of these times, one of these teams is going to knock off the older kids and win both A and AA at Haili.

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The youthful talent here is surging, according to local coaches and administrators, and that can only be good news for the future despite the disheartening numbers, because better players always create better opportunities for themselves and their teammates.

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