Taira Kaawaloa was built to be a perfect puzzle piece for the UH-Hilo volleyball team, which relies on teamwork and intensity to constantly push each other for sharpened improvement.
Kaawaloa, a 5-foot-8 senior, cranked six kills on 12 swings, hit .417, and picked up 12 digs as the Vulcans swept Hawaii Pacific 25-14, 25-21, 25-22 on Saturday at the UHH Gym for the second consecutive day.
Kaawaloa was just as good later in the day, with 14 kills and 11 digs as UHH wrapped a 4-0 stint at home with a four-set win against Chaminade.
Earlier, the Vulcans (7-1) improved on their goal to increase their hitting percentage. They hit .294 and held the Sharks (2-6) to a .157 hitting clip.
Bria Beale added 15 kills and hit .364, and libero Tani Hoke collected 17 digs as UHH turned in quick work, spending 1 hour and 20 minutes to dispatch the Sharks, who were outblocked 7-4.
“We have a good connection with each other and play for each other,” Kaawaloa said. “That’s the reason we do so well. It all comes down to teamwork.”
Kaawaloa transferred to UHH after two seasons at Irvine Valley College, where she was all-conference both years and the school’s Athlete of the Year in 2018.
She played for coach Tom Pestolosi, who was an All-American at UH-Manoa and coached the U.S. national teams.
“I learned so much from him, intensity and passion for the sport. He taught that it’s all about family,” Kaawaloa said. “How to play for each other, teamwork. How to accomplish goals. It’s not a one-person sport. It’s a team sport and how to work together, how to push through hardships.”
Kaawaloa grew up playing soccer and volleyball but chose the family sport, where her dad, Patrick, was the club coach at Lanikai, far more famous for its canoe paddling club.
“I committed to playing volleyball because my dad played volleyball. He was the most intense coach I’ve played for,” she said. “I played for him my whole life until I went to Kailua High School.”
She also paddled for Lanikai before she got hit by the volleyball bug. Her role is as the second outside hitter, the most competitive spot on the team.
Beale is locked in as the LH1 spot as the top hitter in the first rotation. Amber Tai is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
Then there are the youngsters — freshmen 5-8 Samara Cruz (three kills) and 5-8 Chloe Culanding (three swings), and Puget Sound sophomore transfer 6-1 Cara Bolte (two swings) — all hungry for playing time.
“We compete at every practice and don’t go easy on each other,” Kaawaloa said. “We’re competing to make each other and ourselves better.”
UHH coach Chris Leonard was not surprised at Kaawaloa’s 12 digs.
“She’s relentless on defense,” he said. “That’s what we focus on. Her defense is really stellar. She’s got great instincts. She’s a very high IQ volleyball player. She comes from a volleyball family. She has a nose for the ball and finds a way to put herself in a position to make a play.
“She’s happy-go-lucky on the court. She works hard every day. She’s not afraid to sacrifice her body to go and get a ball.”
Kaawaloa will graduate in May with a degree in Kinesiology and exercise science. She’s hoping to land a job as an occupational therapist.
She has the option to return for a repeat senior season under the NCAA’s coronavirus status but is ready to move forward.
It’s likely she’ll join the Lanikai club team and return for the Haili Tournament down the road. The volleyball bug is a lifetime passion for her.
“We have tons of women’s tourneys on Oahu,” she said. “I want to focus on getting started. Being an occupational therapist, you help people get their motor skills back.
“If you had a heart attack and lost mobility in a hand, you bring that back into play. My grandma, Betty Wilhelm had a stroke when I was in high school, and an occupational therapist helped her, and that’s kind of why I got into this.”
Unlike Bria Beale, who has gone skydiving, Kaawaloa’s most adventurous experience was going on a two-hour hike with Beale, Ashton Jessee, Alexandria Parisian, and Kamilla Marinas at the third gulch in Hamakua.
“It was fun and beautiful. I was expecting something flat, not a two-hour hike up boulders,” she said. “There’s a waterfall and somebody put up a rope there. We swam out to the rope and swung off it. Hiking is the last thing on my list now.”
Kaawaloa is a Netflix junkie, and her favorite character is Raven from the show, “The 100.” Raven has an immobilized leg, but she does what she can for her team.
“She’s my favorite character,” Kaawaloa said. “She’s mentally strong and does what she can with her leg.”
Kaawaloa’s legs are fine, but her description of Raven applies to herself at UHH, where she fits like a perfect puzzle piece.