Liepkalne took the long way home
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Dita Liepkalne's has traveled 7,000 miles, from Latvia to the U.S., through three states and six coaches. The constant has been basketball, and many, many friendships.
The Rainbow Wahine's lone senior will be honored tonight after the final home game, against Boise State. As Hawai'i fights for its pride — it has lost six straight — and postseason life — a last-place finish leaves it out of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament — it will also celebrate the unique career of one of the most soothing souls in Latvia or Mānoa.
Liepkalne was precisely what the basketball doctor ordered when Dana Takahara-Dias was hired in May to bring the program back from chaos.
"She was the one leading the pack when it came time to bring change, bring it positively, accept it, really buy into the program," Takahara said, gratefully. "That was the most important contribution we could have had from our lone senior. She was just accepting of us from Day 1."
It is Liepkalne's adventurous, independent, open-minded, extremely kind way.
She left Latvia for Colorado to live as an exchange student her junior year in high school. During her "crazy opportunity" she learned English in the midst of a wealthy neighborhood and all-girls Catholic school.
When state rules did not allow her to play another year, she moved on to "explore another place" — a small basketball powerhouse in a middle-class Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood that won the 2006 state title.
In between, former UH assistant Pat Charity spotted her at a summer tournament and recruited her here. Liepkalne breaks her American tour into three separate pieces. This piece, where she has spent the last four years of her life, is most like Latvia.
"Hawai'i reminds me of home more," Liepkalne said. "It's more relaxed at home like here. The nature Hawai'i is green and we have a lot of 'country' at home so that reminds me of home. And people are very nice, they want to help you out."
She makes it easy. When Takahara met Liepkalne, she was astonished at the support group "someone who came from a million miles away" had nurtured.
"She has made so many profound relationships and such a profound impact," Takahara said. "It is going to be sad to see her leave. I've told her many times I really wish we could have had longer with her."
"Grandma D" started her senior season late, with two bad knees. Each game has been a painful ordeal, with practice and rehab more hellacious. She was named co-captain her first game back, her presence immediately "bringing everybody to a very calm state," according to Takahara.
She has started almost every game the last three years. Her statistics are pedestrian — 7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists a game — though they tend to expand against the best competition. Her contributions, however, are immense, and often invisible. She always gets the most difficult defensive assignment, sets the screens, finds the free teammate along the baseline and "just hustles my heart out."
But more than anything, Liepkalne soothes the psyche of a team that has endured more than its share of negativity the past few years. What she will miss most, she says simply, is "the laughs" and all those friends.
There are no regrets.
"Absolutely not," Liepkalne said. "I think I have learned from each experience. It's how much the feeling changes and how the program can change so much over four years and how much each individual can change in the program that is eye-opening.
"I would not trade it for anything."
Even the losses. Through coaching changes and a team in turmoil the last three years, there have been 44 wins in Liepkalne's four years. That would be a season and a month if she played volleyball. But all have been celebrated with utter joy, never "just a check mark" on the schedule, but truly appreciated for all that has gone into them.
A win tonight, two months before the all-WAC Academic Liepkalne gets her degree in Speech — "with a certificate in human resources and organizational management" — might be sweetest of all. It would go a long way toward getting the Rainbow Wahine into the WAC Tournament and be a fitting close at home to the fascinating career of a woman who would like to "give everyone a big hug" when it's over.
"I don't know what the future holds for her, but I know for sure she'll be in a good place wherever she goes," Takahara said. "She really touched us here in Hawai'i. She touched our program."
Now it's time for another "crazy opportunity." Liepkalne is ready, again, to "see where life takes me."
"I'm sad, happy, all the different emotions," she said, smiling. "But most of all I'm ready."
Beyond Senior Night, promotions at the final home game include Verizon giving away UH patches to the first 300, the UH Federal Credit Union distributing 200 team photos, and half off admission for active, reserve and retired members of the military.
Should Hawai'i (3-11) and San Jose State (2-11) finish tied for last, the WAC Tournament qualifier will be the team with the highest quality wins, starting with the first-place team and working down. The Rainbows' wins have come against Utah State, Idaho and San Jose State. They have one game left after tonight, at Utah State March 6. The Spartans' wins are over UH and Idaho. They close their WAC season tonight at Idaho, next Wednesday at Fresno State and March 6 at New Mexico State.