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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Just let him (be) Finnish

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Although he's learned local traditions, Lauri Hakala wants people to know that he's neither Tongan nor Hawaiian.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WHAT: Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match

WHEN: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Stan Sheriff Center

TV/RADIO: Live on K5 and 1420-AM

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The complexity of University of Hawai'i volleyball player Lauri Hakala begins with his name.

"When he first e-mailed us," UH associate coach Tino Reyes said, "I kind of wondered: Is Lauri a girl or a guy?'"

In Hakala's home nation of Finland, "Lauri" is indeed a masculine name, the Finnish version of the Greek "Laurentios" (crowned with laurels).

"It's not 'Laurie,'" Hakala said, without smiling, noting the "Laur" rhymes with the phonetically challenged "ow-rrr."

His surname is pure Finnish, he keeps insisting to disbelieving Hawai'i residents.

"I got sick of people telling me I'm Hawaiian or Tongan," Hakala said. "Even when I paid my phone bill, they said, 'You must be Hawaiian.' To end the discussion once and for all, I went to the O'ahu phone book. There was only one person who has the 'Hakala' last name. I called him. He said his grandparents came from Finland a long time ago. They're Finnish. There's your proof."

Hakala, UH's starting opposite attacker, also has a unique background. He was raised in a town in central Finland, and his family owns lakeside property on what was once farmland. It was there, during the summer months, when he played what sportscaster Jim Leahey referred to as the oxymoronic Finnish beach volleyball.

"Beach volleyball season is longer than three days," said Hakala, who apparently is suffering from a detached funny bone. "Finland is a beautiful country, and the temperatures get up to 100 degrees. Our summers are about 2 1/2 months, from mid-June to the end of August. Early June is still way, way colder than Hawai'i in the winter.

"We have nice lake beaches, nice inland shores," he added. "That's where people go during the summer. Finns like to fish, and a lot of people play beach volleyball."

Hakala sent out highlight videotapes from his beach and indoor matches. Through a friend of former UH middle blocker Brenton Davis, several of Hakala's videotapes were addressed to the UH coaches.

The videos showed Hakala's powerful swings and bursts of quickness when he soared for a block.

"There are some things that are really hard to see (on video), like facial expressions," UH coach Mike Wilton said. "That's important. That shows how he reacts. That shows what kind of teammate he is."

Wilton said UH does not have the means to scout European prospects in person.

"One trip probably would kill seven years of recruiting," Wilton said.

Instead, the coaches try to supplement information on the tape by interviewing a prospect's coaches and friends. They also measure character and dependability by the way a recruit handles follow-up queries.

"Lauri was extremely diligent," Wilton said, noting Hakala provided transcripts and other key documents. Hakala also maintained constant contact, even while serving a year training with the Finnish army.

"When we were getting pretty close to signing him, he called us from one of his maneuvers," Reyes recalled. "I asked him, 'Where are you guys?' He said, 'Up north.' I said, 'Where up north?' He said, 'The Arctic Circle.' That was different. He e-mailed us a picture from there. He had his parka off."

Hakala said: "Tino said he had a hard time picturing what it was like. He was in Hawai'i, all warm, and I was up there, where it's glaciers and ice and snow."

Hakala recalled his military training as being difficult, but beneficial. He remembered moonless nights near the Russian border, when he carried a 100-pound backpack and an assault rifle.

"It goes down to negative 30," he recalled. "You're skiing in the darkest of night. There's 3 feet of snow, and you have to keep pushing. It was everything you imagine the army to be, except it's snowing and cold."

Hakala is a self-described "pacifist. I don't support war. But I'm a real patriot guy, and I love my country. In Finland, it's mandatory military service."

He said he belonged to a unit that consisted of some of the country's best athletes. He said the unit accepts about 10 percent of the hundreds who apply.

His volleyball training inspired him to apply to college programs in the United States.

Because of the delay in the NCAA Clearinghouse's approving his eligibility, Hakala entered his first season 2005 as a sophomore. He expects to make up the difference quickly. Hakala said he is on track to earn a bachelor's degree at the end of his seventh semester at UH, in December 2007. He is studying speech and communications.

"I want to be a diplomat someday," said Hakala, who is fluent in Finnish, Swedish, German, English and Estonian. He is studying Spanish and Russian at UH.

"He's a very bright guy," Reyes said. "Coming from Europe and experiencing so many different things, he's really open-minded."

At the end of last season, Hakala strongly considered leaving UH.

"I was really close," he said. "I was about to leave because of reasons I don't want to talk about. I talked to the coaches, and a lot of different things happened. I'm really happy I stayed here."

In fall training, he also benefitted from the tutoring of guest consultant Carl McGown, who had coached Brigham Young to two NCAA titles.

Hakala, who played left-side hitter last year and in the fall, replaced injured John Matt Bender at opposite attacker during training camp. He is second on the team with 3.69 kills per game.

"The entire atmosphere has changed," Hakala said. "The guys are more open. If the guys have a problem, they can talk about it openly. Things are good."

Reach Stephen Tsai at stsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.