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Made in the middle: Vulcans’ 4 blockers keep coach on his toes, because they all deserve playing time

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Freshman Imeleta Ale provides key depth for UHH at middle blocker.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Ashton Jessee was injured as UH-Hilo's volleyball team made its postseason run in 2019, but she's healthy and ready to go for her senior season.

Chris Leonard likes to tell the UH-Hilo volleyball team’s Tom Brady-version tale of how the program qualified for the postseason in 2019 for the first time in eight years.

Pretty much everyone knows that the former New England Patriots’ sixth-round draft pick has won seven Super Bowls. What is often forgotten is that Drew Bledsoe was injured, but Brady was prepared and ready to do the job.

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That was the case for the Vulcans in 2019 when middle blockers Ashton Jessee and Emily Wade were injured, but Armani Moultrie and Kamilla Marinas were prepared and ready to do the job.

Both filled in admirably during UHH’s 12-match winning streak, which led to a 23-8 record, including a first-round loss to GNAC powerhouse Western Washington in the West Regional.

The faces have changed for the Vulcans, who were picked to finish No. 2 in the preseason PacWest poll. Wade, who made the All-PacWest first team, transferred but has a welcome mat to return. Moultrie graduated.

The 6-3 Jessee, who is healthy after a knee injury, is back for her senior season, and the 5-11 Marinas returns for her sophomore year. The two new middles are 6-3 sophomore Sydney Gott, and 5-11 freshman Imeleta Ale.

The point Leonard makes is that backups always need to be ready. It keeps practices competitive and pushes the starters. But also, no one knows when a starter will go down.

“We’ve got four middles in the gym. Ashton has been playing really well in practice. Gott has been great. Marinas gave us great minutes last year, and we’ve got Ale,” UHH coach Chris Leonard said. “One challenge will be to get them all in. They’re all solid. We’ve got a lot of depth. It’s an advantage over teams, especially if we’re passing well.”

The Vulcans start their season this weekend with four matches, playing Saint Martin’s (4-0) twice, Cal State East Bay (3-1), and Montana State Billings (3-1).

While the Vulcans take aim at two-time defending conference champion Azusa Pacific (2-3), they might want to look in their rear-view mirror for Chaminade (6-2), which tied UHH at No. 2 in the preseason poll and already took town No. 11 MSU Denver in five sets on the road.

“That was a big win over No. 11 Metro State on the road,” Leonard said. “Kahala (Kabalis Hoke, Chaminade’s coach) has nice talent with a couple of new players. We went 14-2 in the spring but worked hard to get there. The matchups were a lot closer. It’s going to be a tougher road trip to Hawaii for the mainland teams than it used to be.”

In 2019, Jessee played in just 12 of UHH’s 31 matches, but she still showed her force with a .298 attack average. When there’s big game on the table, Jessee, who’s from Alaska, goes hunting for bear. She had 11 kills and hit .409 in a five-set loss to No. 2 Western Washington.

As a sophomore in 2018, Jessee led the PacWest in blocks. She’s a tremendous two-way threat. She’s a high-efficiency hitter and just as good when blocking, and UHH’s roof height will have no drop-off when Gott rotates to the front.

Marinas, who’s from Waianae on Oahu’s Leeward coast, was a local-connection discovery for Leonard when he was an assistant under former coach Gene Krieger.

“She had gone to the mainland and came back, and a friend reached out to me that she moved back home,” he said. “I told Gene we might have a pretty good middle.”

Marinas started 15 matches during the coronavirus pandemic spring season and led the Vulcans in solo blocks.

Ale is the daughter of Arnold Ale, who was an NFL linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers back in the 1990s. He’s now the San Jose State linebackers coach.

She obviously inherited her dad’s athletic genes.

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“She’s got quick feet and a quick arm. She’s really fluid on the court,” Leonard said. “ We’ve got really good middles. They make each other better.”

Ale just got a small dash of experience during the spring with just six games. But as Leonard is fond of pointing out you never know when your number will be called.

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