Springing back: UHH volleyball navigates new terrain, tries to replace middle Wade

  • RICK OGATA photo Emily Wade was a freshman standout for the Vulcans last season, but she’s left the school for personal reasons, UHH said.

For the UH-Hilo volleyball team, fall is the new spring.

“Unfinished business” and holding freshman to the fire are on hold as the August grind gives way.

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Instead, the returnees have time to touch up areas needing individual improvement, and the first-timers can ease into their transition.

“Ordinarily, we would have two weeks of practice right into nonconference play,” coach Chris Leonard said.

This year has been anything but ordinary.

When the Vulcans last gathered on the court, their spring practice period was shut down by the onset of COVID-19. Last week, the Pacific West Conference voted to suspend fall sports until the spring of 2021 due to the pandemic. When the Vuls meet again, Leonard envisions the team largely picking up where it left off.

“We’re disappointed, but I think the (PacWest) made the right decision,” Leonard said. “We’re still waiting on details for what we can and can’t do during the fall (workouts) and making sure we meet Centers for Disease Control and Preparedness guidelines and to be able to make it safe for all athletes.”

“Unfinished business” figures to be one of the team’s prime mantras after UHH, led by all-star hitter Bria Beale, rode a 12-match winning streak last season toward its first postseason appearance since 2011. Leonard, who had his interim label lifted in March, spent much of his debut season heralding his team’s depth and talent at middle blocker. Both will be tested now that Emily Wade, a first-team all-PacWest performer as a freshman menace at 6-foot-4, has left the program.

“Personal reasons,” Leonard said. “It wasn’t anything bad here, just family reasons. I was sorry to see her go for many reasons but wish her the best.”

UHH never was able to fully take advantage of its twin towers in the middle in 2019 because Ashton Jessee, 6-3, was injured and played in only 12 matches after leading the PacWest in blocks per set as a sophomore. Jessee is poised to return for her senior season, and in her absence last year Kamilla Marinas stepped in and gained valuable experience, playing in 15 matches as a freshman.

“During the 12-game winning streak we had games where we didn’t have Emily or Ashton in the middle, but Kamilla and (then-senior) Armani Moultrie were really good even though on the depth chart they were only Nos. 3-4,” Leonard said. “I’m still confident in the depth that we’re going to have.

“We’re really excited about getting Ashton back in the lineup, and Kamilla will be ready to go.”

Imeleta Ale, of Carson, Calif., is a true freshman that Leonard thinks can make an impact and Waiakea alum Melina Devela will have a shot to make bigger contributions in her third year in the program.

Plus, Leonard now has more time on his side. This fall can be used for development purposes.

“We lost the spring and for some of our players that’s an opportunity when you have a chance to work on things you don’t really get to work on during the season,” he said. “You get to do more individual skill work and positional work. That’s tougher when you’re preparing for a match this Saturday.

“For the (eight) freshman, it will give us extra time to work with them and hopefully get them up to speed with our system.”

Much of the guidelines for fall workouts – to say nothing of what’s to come in the spring – and gym usage are still to be determined, Leonard said. Full team weight room sessions are being put on hold, and UHH may practice in small pods or among positional groups.

“Volleyball is seen as a higher-risk sport because of your proximity to the net and because of the contact with the ball,” Leonard said. “You can’t change the ball out after each contact.

“We’ve talked about not changing over after each set so you don’t have to clean the benches, prohibiting high-fives and stuff like that.”

Recruiting is an area of concern for Leonard as a Division II college coaching looking for prospects and as a club coach who is trying to find scholarships opportunity for his players.

Ordinarily, he would have spent the summer at national tournaments to scout high school players in person, but these days he’s spending time watching prospects on video, much of which hasn’t been updated because of the pandemic.

“We’re evaluating talent on video in some cases that’s a year old, in a time when, in theory, a lot of players are making progress,” he said “It certainly makes it challenging for coaches.”

And players.

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“The 2021 high school grads haven’t been seen like they’ve been wanted to because they lost their entire club season,” he said. “For our Big Island kids, a lot of them didn’t get any mainland exposure this year. If they lose their senior (high school) season, they lose an opportunity to put together video for a year prior to their graduation. That’s pretty tough.”

Welcome to the new fall. It could look a lot like the spring, at least until spring gets here.

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