There are high expectations for the UH-Hilo volleyball team, which was picked to finish No. 2 in the preseason PacWest coaches’ poll, based on their returning firepower with five starters back and two transfers expected to make an immediate impact.
In the last full season in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, the Vulcans finished second to league powerhouse Azusa Pacific and reached the postseason for the first time since 2011.
To throw in a little extra motivation, it’s the last stand for seniors Bria Beale, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter who serves as the hammer and horse, Ashton Jessee, a 6-3 middle blocker and high-percentage attacker, and Alexandria Parisian, a 6-1 durable opposite who balances the offense from the right side.
The two other returning starters are 6-0 sophomore setter Kendall Kott, who adds height to the block and already set a school assist record in 2019, and 5-3 freshman libero Tani Hoke who already has a head start in experience with the PacWest Hawaii pod spring season.
The newcomers are 5-10 sophomore hitter Nicole Schmitz, a transfer from the University of Jamestown, an NAIA school in North Dakota, and 6-3 sophomore middle Sydney Gott, a transfer from Feather River College, who led the Golden Eagles to their 10th conference championship in 2019.
The season opener is Friday against Saint Martin’s in the Hawaii Challenge at McCabe Gym on Oahu. It’s a four-match, three-day tourney, which also includes Cal State East Bay, Saint Martin’s again, and Montana State Billings.
All of the schools are known as perennial underdogs. The Saints went 1-28 in 2019, the Pioneers were 7-19, and the Yellowjackets went 8-22, underwhelming records compared to the PacWest competition, which starts Sept. 18 against Chaminade at McCabe Gym, followed by Hawaii Pacific a day later at the Shark Tank.
“The team is excited to get on the floor and play somebody other than ourselves,” UHH coach Chris Leonard said. “This year’s team has more depth across the board at every position. We’re deeper and more talented, and the competition has been really good at practice, the result is making us better.”
It’ll be a nice reunion for Leonard when UHH plays East Bay, where his former Waiakea player Ashia Joseph is an assistant coach. The Pioneers (3-1) were picked to finish 10th in the preseason CCAA poll. Cal State San Berardino, the 2019 national champion, was selected No. 1.
There will also be a familiar face on the St. Martin’s roster in freshman outside hitter Tia Allen, daughter of UH-Manoa volleyball great Allen Allen. Tia Allen was the MVP at the Montana State Billings tournament, which finished Saturday.
The Saints (5-0) were picked to finish 10th in the preseason GNAC poll. Western Washington, the 2018 national runner-up, was selected No. 1.
After Waiakea, Joseph played at College of Southern Idaho, where she won a national championship in 2013. Then she transferred to East Bay, where she is fifth in career assists in just two seasons.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with her,” Leonard said. “She’s doing really well. She’s a great young lady and coach. I’m looking forward to seeing her back home.”
After 10 road matches, the Vulcans finally make their home debut against Biola on Oct. 6. The Urban Knights were 14-8 and sixth in the PacWest in 2019; UHH was 18-4 and the conference runner-up to Azusa Pacific.
Any conversation about the Vulcans starts with Beale, who in 2019 led the PacWest in points and kills and was named All-West Region, the first Vulcan since Hillary Hurley in 2011.
She’s everything a coach would want in a difference-maker. She’s experienced, athletic, court savvy and a six-rotation player. During the shortened spring season, Beale led the league in total kills and aces, showing the ability to dent the defense with her hitting and serving.
“Obviously, she’s explosive, a smart player who sees the game well,” Leonard said. “She’s more than just athletic. She has a high volleyball IQ and a smart player in addition to being athletic and skilled.”
Hoke, Beale, and Schmitz will serve as the primary serve-receive passers. It helps the ball-control when everyone serves tough at practice. When Kott gets a good pass to work with, Leonard can envision what Schmitz will do when Beale rotates to the back row.
“We’re happy with what we’ve seen of her,” he said. “She is explosive and has a lively arm. She’s a great addition to the roster.”
Parisian has been UHH’s Cal Ripken Jr., playing in all the matches. She flies under the radar because Beale and Jessee call down the thunder when they hit. But there’s Parisian, who’s always there.
“It’s hard to believe it’s her senior year already,” Leonard said. “She has worked hard and has been hitting the ball really well. She’s a student of the game and somebody who would make a great coach if she chose to do so. She studies the game and watches a lot of film. She’s a student of the game, and that’s what I like in a player.”
Samara Cruz, a 5-8 freshman hitter from a San Diego county, has impressed the coaching staff. Yes, she’s undersized, but Tanya Fuamatu, was an inch shorter and was a two-time PacWest player of the year, and an NAIA player of the year in 1993.
“She’s a good all-around volleyball player,” Leonard said. “She has Hawaii ties. She was born on Maui. She’s got pretty solid ball-control. She worked hard to make improvements on defense. We’ve got high expectations, and she’ll make significant contributions this season.