UH-Hilo volleyball: From club to college, interim coach Leonard raring to get going

  • Chris Leonard will approach coaching the Vulcans much like he does his Pilipaa club team: “It’s fundamentals. I’m a defensive-minded coach.”
  • RICK OGATA photo Bria Beale, foreground is the Vulcans’ best returning player, while Kaila Lizama is in line to replace Mina Grant at libero. UH-Hilo started practice Monday ahead of its season-opener Sept. 6 at the Hawaii Challenge on Oahu.

It’s 4 a.m. and Chris Leonard is in a hotel bed somewhere on the mainland thinking about volleyball. Two days later, the interim coach will be in the UHH gym running his first practice.

Leonard takes over from Gene Krieger, who was an ace recruiter and posted UHH’s first winning season in seven years.

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The Vuls finished third in the PacWest, tied with rival Chaminade and behind front-runners Azusa Pacific and Biola, a pair of rising powers in the conference.

The question that bugs Leonard in his sleep is a simple one: How do you take a pretty good team and bump it to the rarefied air that only champions breathe?

It’s, basically, ball-control, the first touches on the ball (serving and passing), something Leonard has spent a lifetime coaching.

It’s the blueprint on how his perennially undersized Pilipaa club teams would beat bigger opponents in national tournaments.

“Obviously, my philosophy from club has carried over,” he said. “It’s fundamentals. I’m a defensive-minded coach. The hard work includes ball-control to reduce the errors we make. We’ll have physicality. We’ll be really big for a Division II squad. We have to improve our ball-control to run an offense as fast as we can and still stay in control.”

His coaching staff is filled with five-star experts. There’s Ecko Osorio, the longtime former Waiakea coach, who shares similar thinking with Leonard, who’ll have his daughter Zoe Leonard as an assistant.

She’s a former libero/setter at Dartmouth, a Division I Ivy League school. Back on staff are sisters Poli Olevao-Kahapea and Tai Manu-Olevao, the former 6-foot outside hitter for the Rainbow Wahine.

The volunteer coaches are former Vulcans Basia Sauni, a junior college All-American, and Sienna Davis, the all-time UHH assists leader. Both are prime examples of giving back to their old school.

“We’ve put together a really solid staff,” said Leonard, an assistant under Krieger aid. “I’m looking forward to working with Ecko. We work well and have been together many, many years. One of the good things is if you look at our staff we’ve got a lot of people who focus on ball-control. We’ve got like-minded people and it’s a natural fit.”

One huge parting gift Krieger, who departed after just two seasons, left is 5-11 Bria Beale, an all-conference player with two years of eligibility remaining. The other returning starters are 6-3 middle blocker Ashton Jessee, who led the PacWest in blocks, and 6-1 opposite Alexandra Parisian.

“Those are our top three point scorers, and we have a nice recruiting class coming in,” Leonard said. “It’s nice to have someone like Bria. She’s well aware of what we’re going up against in the conference. We’ve got a good core from last year’s team and that helps us significantly.”

Senior Kaila Lizama is in line to replace Mina Grant at libero. Grant is the all-time school digs leader, surpassing Vulcan Hall of Famer Tanya Fuamatu. Lizama had a 28-dig performance against Hawaii Pacific and 26 digs against Biola.

At the other outside hitting spot, the candidates include Oahu products and juniors Amber Tai and Taira Kaawaloa, an all-conference selection at Irvine Valley Conference.

Jorene Ulu, a sophomore from Waianae, is in the mix at setter. Kendall Kott, a 6-0 freshman from Shingle Springs, Calif., would add height to UHH’s block if she wins the job.

Also on the roster are two local products in sophomore middle Melina Devela, from Waiakea, and freshman libero Mia Takai, from Hilo.

Both come from BIIF championship stock. Either the Warriors or Vikings won the league title in their day.

The Vulcans led the conference in blocks but were fifth in assists and sixth in kills, so those are two areas to fine-tune where better ball-control would help.

In the second week of the season, the Vulcans hit the road, where two Goliaths await. They play No. 3 and national runner-up Western Washington on Sept. 14 and No. 20 Cal Poly Pomona.

“It’ll be a challenge. I love it, and it’s great to see where we are right away,” Leonard said. “It’s a great way to see what we have to work on. We tell our team that every day is a challenge. The first few weeks of the season will set the tone for the rest of the season.”

Whether he’s wearing a Vulcan or a Pilipaa shirt, Leonard is the same guy. He wants his players to compete for jobs and sets the bar high. It’s Darwinism in a volleyball gym.

“We’ve got a lot of talented kids, and they’re really motivated,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve been close in some time. The girls have to work harder to get over the hump. The girls are going in to compete every day, to get better every day. We want to make progress every day. That’s our mantra. We’ll find out early how good we are, who we are, and where we need to be.”

There’s nothing like following your own advice. Leonard isn’t worried about putting on a great audition for the full-time gig.

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Asked if he’s interested in the job full-time, Leonard offered something that sounded like a company line. But he’s not built that way. He’s thinking about volleyball, even in his sleep.

“My focus this season is to do the best that we can,” he said. “Whatever goes beyond that is a discussion for later.”

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