Chris Leonard sat in his office at the UH-Hilo athletic complex earlier this week like many other coaches, but his perch was a little different.
Leonard has an even bigger office across town at New West Broadcasting Corp. headquarters, and there is no boss to answer to just across the way. Well, maybe one.
“My wife is there,” Leonard said.
Joking aside, the interim Vulcans volleyball coach doesn’t have to be here, but he clearly didn’t take up a second office on a whim or dare or just to have fun.
“I’m a competitive guy by nature and I want to win,” said Leonard, a former UHH assistant who is well-schooled in Vuls history. “We strive to hang a (PacWest) banner in this gym. It’s been a while.”
He paused, perhaps for effect, adding, “Ten years, 2009.”
Vying to be “25 strong” – 18 players and seven coaches – the Vulcans open the season Friday with matches against Chico State and Minot State at the Hawaii Challenge on Oahu, and in the quest for the ‘chip, UHH will carry a chip on its shoulder.
The Vuls bring back a strong nucleus from a squad that finished 21-7 last season and tied for third in the Pacific West Conference, but the coaches ranked them fifth in the preseason poll. The numbers didn’t add up to junior outside hitter Bria Beale, UHH’s best returning player.
“That’s an insult,” said Beale, who the coaches respected, voting her to repeat as all-conference player. “I don’t see how we can be ranked lower than we finished. It was pretty insulting that Point Loma (which was swept by the Vuls last season) was above us.”
That the Vulcans return 10 players is notable, but Leonard didn’t sound like he’s paying too much attention to who’s back or who’s new. Armed with what he sees as “significant depth” at middle blocker, one of his primary goals has been to cultivate competition at every position, not to make his players feel uncomfortable, but more so to make them rise to the challenge.
“One of the things that I’m most excited about is there are a number of positions that if someone were to struggle on a given night, that I have a player that I expect and can count on to get the job done,” he said. “We’re going to have some great payers that don’t get a lot of playing time.
“We’re going to have days in the practice gym where we’re playing six-on-six and the competition may be as intense or more intense than some of our matches. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Former coach Gene Krieger liked to point out last season that while many players did their individual jobs, Beale exceeded at hers, leading the Vulcans in kills, while also lending a hand everywhere else. The Division I transfer rarely left the court last season and finished second on the team in digs and aces.
She might not leave the court this season either, though her workload should be lightened thanks to the increased weapons and firepower in the fold.
“I was relied on for a lot last year and in similar ways this year,” Beale said. “I play all around, serve-receive, defense, so it’s hard not to touch the a ball, but I think the height we have in the middle will attract a lot of the block and relieve the pressure I felt.”
Ashton Jessee, a 6-foot-3 junior, led the PacWest in blocks per set last season, 6-4 freshman Emily Wade is expected to make an immediate impact and opposite Alexandria Parisian, 6-1, was second on the Vuls in kills as a freshman.
Leonard called Parisian “a really nice player,” but he noted she’s being challenged by 6-2 freshman Emma Behnam.
“Emily has an amazing wingspan, she can block half of the net by herself,” Beale said, “and she hits at such a high contact that the angle to her swing is just to the floor every time.”
At outside hitter, another key newcomer is junior Taira Kaawaloa, a two-time all-league outside hitter selection at Irvine Valley College who is from Honolulu. Amber Tai was slowed with injuries last year, but she played in all 27 matches as a freshman, starting in 13. Also back in the mix is Lucee Fitzgerald, who was third on the Vulcans in kills in 2017 before an injury ended her season and kept her on the sidelines for all of 2018.
“The nice thing is that we have an improvement in size, but we also have a handful of ball-control players that coming in I think will help improve our passing,” Leonard said. “We are going to be a better passing team than we were last year for sure.”
The Vulcans even boast height at setter, though 6-0 freshman Kendall Kott’s status for the opener was in question because of an injury.
Kaila Lizama, meanwhile, is easily the most experienced option at libero.
The senior filled in admirably last season when Mina Grant went down with an injury, and Leonard said his outside hitters are versatile enough to fill in as defensive specialists.
UHH athletics is looking to carry over the momentum that was gained last season, and Beale expects the volleyball program to carry its weight. She compared the department as a whole to “feisty underdogs that are coming to bite.”
Just don’t tell her the volleyball team is a PacWest underdog.
“Watch out, I think people are underestimating us,” she said, “and we’d like to keep it that way. We want to be unexpected. We’re working quietly and working hard, and when people see us they are going to know.”
vs. Chico State, 12:30 p.m. at St. Francis
vs. Minot State, 5 p.m. at Chaminade
vs. Sonoma State, 10 a.m. at Chaminade
vs. West Virginia State, 5:30 p.m at St. Francis