Volleyball boost from Big Island
By Dennis Anderson
Special to The Advertiser
By Dennis Anderson
The question is, who has had the greater impact on whom?
The three student-athletes from 150-student St. Joseph High School in Hilo who traveled almost 5,000 miles for their college adventure, or the volleyball program at Fairfield University in Connecticut, which has a 34-2 record in conference matches since they joined the team in 2004.
Lindsey Lee, Jazmin Pa'akaula and Ashley Hanohano have been volleyball teammates since they were 9 years old, first with the Waiakea YWCA Na Opio Juniors, then at St. Joseph and the last four seasons at NCAA Division I Fairfield.
Their impact on Fairfield is evident in the bookkeeping. The Stags have won three straight regular-season championships in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Lee, who leaps so high she plays middle and outside hitter at 5 feet 4, was the conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 2006 and became the fifth player in Fairfield history to accumulate 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs. She currently stands fourth in both career categories with 1,237 kills and 1,336 digs, with a shot at the Fairfield digs record.
Pa'akaula, a 5-9 outside hitter, ranks sixth in career digs at Fairfield with 1,273 and with 14 more kills will become the sixth Fairfield player to reach 1,000 in both categories.
Hanohano, a 5-5 setter, is fifth on Fairfield's career assists list with 1,588 despite injuries the past two seasons that severely curtailed her playing time. Tendinitis in the deltoid of her left arm kept her out of the first four matches this season, but she set the Stags to their first victory Saturday night.
A fourth player from Hawai'i, junior Brandi Higa, a 5-4 libero, leads Fairfield in digs this season with 4.72 per game and is in the top 10 on the career list. She is a 2005 graduate of Hawai'i Baptist Academy.
There were five from the Islands on the Stags' roster last season, when 2003 Kamehameha graduate Kiana Kauwe completed her eligibility.
Fairfield coach Jeff "CJ" Werneke's first experience with Hawai'i players was when he was an assistant at Rutgers and recruited Megan Edwards from Saint Francis and Casey Castillo of Kamehameha's national champion 1999 wonder team.
"Hawai'i players are seen as undersized by some coaches, but their passion for the game and their knowledge of the game — their volleyball culture — becomes infectious and can transform your team," Werneke says.
"We play ball control, fast offense, intense defense. Players from Hawai'i have the ability to play that kind of game," Werneke says.
He saw that when he first observed Lee, Pa'akaula and Hanohano playing for Na Opio in a summer tournament in Las Vegas in 2002. Werneke initiated a conversation with their coach, Rachelle Hanohano, who is Ashley's mother.
"He knew they could play, but he wanted to know them as people," Hanohano said.
"The most important thing," Werneke says, "is that they are good people."
The Hilo contingent arrived for its official recruiting visit during a blizzard and experienced the East at its most daunting. But they loved the campus and the team and, one by one, they signed scholarship agreements.
After four years, they don't want to leave. "All four have approached me about staying as graduate assistant coaches next season," Werneke says.
Coming to Fairfield "is the best decision I ever made," says Lee, who also considered Baylor and Alabama. "I just love it here. I want to stay here after I graduate."
She likes the fast pace of life ("people walk faster"), four seasons and says, "I actually like learning now." A psychology major, Lee sees her future as "a volleyball coach or a firefighter."
Pa'akaula says, "It's all about stepping out of your comfort zone and being exposed to new things, like coming some place where the weather changes. All of us have adjusted well — you find ways to deal with the cold — and found our little niche. I have become more well-rounded."
She is a music major who would like to give graduate school a shot. "Being from Hawai'i is pretty special," Pa'akaula says. "I know I can always go back."
Ashley Hanohano echoes that sentiment. "Home is always home," she says. "I see myself going home eventually to settle, but I want to see what else is out there."
Fairfield is in Bridgeport, Conn., an hour's train ride from New York City, which Hilo's Hanohano finds "a little overwhelming" and Honolulu's Higa finds exhilarating. "I saw (the musical) 'Rent' with the cast from the movie," Higa says.
Higa would like to follow college with a year in Europe, writing.
Rachelle Hanohano, who coached the Hilo players from age 9 to 17, observes, "They have grown up to be very, very powerful young women, thanks to the educational opportunities they have had through the sport of volleyball."
Fairfield's Hawaiian connection will not end with the graduation of the current players. Sacred Hearts senior Haililani Pokipala has committed for next season and coach Werneke is looking for others.
"You experience a lot of growth when you step out of your comfort zone," he says.