Taina “Boom T” Leao will bring her booming thunder shots to Delaware State, where a familiar face is trying to turn around the volleyball program.
Leao, a 2019 Hilo graduate, has never been to the South-Atlantic state near New Jersey, and Bruce Atkinson, a former UH-Hilo coach, is in his first year there.
Her Piopio Bears club coach Laura Thompson sparked the connection, and Leao took on the task of playing more than 4,830 miles from home.
“I ended up at Delaware State when coach Laura told me coach Bruce was interested in me,” Leao said. “He likes Hawaii girls because they have a certain drive, and it’s Division I, so I started to take an interest.”
The drive part is obvious in Leao, who pushed the Vikings over Kamehameha for their first BIIF Division I championship since 2016.
She and recent Kamehameha graduate Nani Spaar, who’s headed to Santa Clara, were named the BIIF co-players of the year.
Thompson played under Atkinson when he was at UHH, so Leao has an understanding of what to expect for the Hornets, who finished 2-27 last season.
“She played for the Vulcans so I know how his teaching techniques are through coach Laura and her experience,” Leao said. “I’m still working for a starting spot. The team is completely new with only two returnees and a good amount are from other countries, too.”
Atkinson has a history of turning programs around. He won conference titles and had success at UHH, Towson, and Winthrop. He has a 217-116 record over 11 years.
DSU was picked to finish fifth in the six-team Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason poll. Four-time defending league champion Howard was selected as the favorite.
At least, Leao won’t be the only Hawaii native on the roster. There’s 5-foot-9 outside hitter Ryanne Burnet, from Sacred Hearts, one of 12 freshmen. The 5-9 Leao is listed at middle blocker, but she can swing from the right and left posts.
She may not have the ideal height for a middle, but Leao is versatile as a left-handed hitter, has a solid vertical and a booming cannon for an arm to compensate against taller foes. She’s optimistic about DSU’s future.
“It’s a new team and new season so I have high hopes that with coach Bruce’s help we can make the program better,” Leao said. “Knowing he turned the Vulcans program around and leading them to the conference championship in his first year (2005), I know he’ll do the same.”
DSU is a suburban campus with about 4,800 students, and Leao is still trying to find a comfort zone. She’s majoring in nursing.
“Being away from home is really hard. The culture and the way things are, even the food is just so different, but it’s been getting thanks to my teammates,” she said.
The Hornets open their season against Texas Southern and Jackson State on Friday, Aug. 30 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Leao is far from home, but she’s learning, growing and holding Hilo close to her heart.
“The best thing about DSU is that it’s a new experience for me, and it sort of in a way showed me how the world is outside of Hawaii,” she said. “My goal is to maintain good grades and make Hawaii and my family proud.”