‘Alaska is just as beautiful,’ says Kaapuni, who savors volleyball homecoming

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Though it came in a five-set loss against UH-Hilo, Hilo High alum Mahala Kaapuni smacked a career-high 15 kills Saturday night for Alaska Anchorage.

Overall, it was a pretty good homecoming for Mahala Kaapuni against the UH-Hilo volleyball team, which prevented a perfect ending through its relentless defensive effort.

Alaska Anchorage and the Vulcans split a pair of matches with the home team pulling out a five-set marathon 23-25, 20-25, 25-20, 28-26, 15-13 on Saturday night at the UHH Gym.

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It was UHH’s seventh five-set marathon in 15 matches, and the Vulcans are 5-2 when it goes the distance, highlighting their poise when the heat is turned up in the kitchen.

Still, Kaapuni, a 2020 Hilo graduate, had a blast. The 5-foot-9 freshman outside hitter knocked down 15 kills on 33 swings for a .242 hitting clip and picked up six digs and two blocks for the Seawolves, who hit .205.

“I was really excited. It was nice to see all my teammates see my hometown,” she said. “They got to experience all the waterfalls in the pouring rain. I love Alaska. It’s just as beautiful as here, the complete opposite, snow vs. rain. The community in general just reminds me of home, and I love it so much.

“Right now, it’s getting warmer because it’s summer time, about 50 degrees. But in the winter, it hit down to negative 1. At every restaurant, instead of Portuguese sausage, you get reindeer sausage. It’s like regular meat. They sell Spam in the stores, very expensive Spam.”

But the difference in this one was UHH’s poise, a trait found in Bria Beale, who had solid numbers: 18 kills on 65 swings, a .154 hitting percentage, and 22 digs.

The stats don’t measure poise, but Beale, a 5-11 All-West Region senior hitter, has more than enough and held her own against Alaska Anchorage anchor Eve Stephens, a second-team All-American, a higher honor on the recognition ladder.

The 6-1 junior opposite doesn’t hit the ball as hard as Beale but relies on her savvy to find holes from the right side and back row. Stephens knocked down 22 kills on a whopping 73 swings, hit .219, and had 16 digs but committed five untimely service errors against just one ace.

Anchorage doubles down with All-Americans. Ellen Floyd, a 5-10 junior setter, was an honorable mention. She’s got good hands and runs a step-out, where she backsets the ball for a hitter who races around her, like a wide receiver running a curl, to slam the ball from the right post.

But the Vulcans were often all over the court to dig balls up and finished with more digs, 114-110. Tani Hoke, who’s on her way to becoming UHH’s best libero, piled up 29 digs, Beale had 22, Alexandra Parisian added 19, setter Kendall Kott had 17, and Taira Kaawaloa had 15 digs.

“Relentlessness on defense was a huge factor for us,” UHH coach Chris Leonard said. “We didn’t give up balls. We told the team going into the fourth set that five is our thing. Mahala Kaapuni had a couple of nice nights for them and played really well. She did a nice job for them.

“But the big difference for us is we made a lot of digs at the right time. They’re a big attacking team, and we took everything in the fourth and fifth sets that they could fire at us. Every night Bria comes to play. She took a lot of swings, and it’s not an easy thing to do. But she does it every night when we need her. In tight situations, I like that she wants the ball, and she wants to take that swing.”

It was a great experience playing a team like the Seawolves because the Vulcans don’t face that type of competition in the PacWest, not someone with two All-Americans who play in the second-best conference in the West Region.

The California Collegiate Athletic Association has been the best in the business for volleyball in the West Region. Cal State San Bernardino won the national title in 2019 and finished runner-up in 2017 and ’08. The Great Northwest Athletic Conference has been sthe the second best. Western Washington was runner-up in 2018, and Alaska Anchorage was second in 2016.

“As a team, we connect very well and have great coaches,” Kaapuni said. “We’ve improved a lot since last year, and I’m excited to play some more. I play everywhere (left, middle, and opposite). It’s great to get some blocks against people who don’t expect a 5-9 middle to get up there. So far, we’re doing well.

“The plane ride over was horrible, but it was good to know I was coming home. I had a loco moco for breakfast at Hawaiian Style Cafe. It was fun playing against my old club coach (Leonard at Pilipaa). Before I played for the Piopio Bears (coached by Laura Thompson), I played with Pilipaa with coach Chris.”

The PacWest has been nowhere near those two conferences. BYU-Hawaii was the last one in the national picture with a runner-up finish in 2013. But the Seasiders dropped sports after 2017.

In 2019, Alaska Anchorage beat Western Washington twice but fell to Cal State San Bernardino in the West Regional. The young Seawolves figure to improve because they face really tough conference competition.

Alaska Anchorage also has a heated rivalry with Alaska Fairbanks, separated by six miles up north. The Seawolves are 3-1 against the Nanooks this year.

Kaapuni compared that rivalry to Hilo and Waiakea. She was part of Hilo and Waiakea’s greatest BIIF championship comeback in 2017 when the Warriors rallied from an 0-2 hole and late-game deficits to win in five sets.

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“It’s big, absolutely like Hilo and Waiakea, and we saw that in our last few games,” Kaapuni said. “There’s a big competition between us because they beat us in one of our matches, and we came back stronger and beat them.”

It was getting late on Saturday night, and Kaapuni had to go. She was home, so a loco moco was on her mind for breakfast.