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Keeping a low profile

Hawaii volleyball players excel by staying closer to the ground

By Ann Miller

LAST UPDATED: 10:17 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2011

For a "low profile" volleyball state, Hawaii juniors sure have been soaring this summer.

Ka Ulukoa won its fourth consecutive USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championship this month in Minneapolis. It captured the 15 Open title, with tournament MVP Larry "Tui" Tuileta soaring and scoring the last three points in a 25-21, 30-28 win over Puerto Rico's Borinquen Coqui in the final.

Down in Atlanta, Team Piko Ho‘omau was winning the 14 National girls championship a week after taking the 14 Club title at the AAU Girls' Junior National Championships in Orlando, Fla.

In all, 22 Hawaii teams earned top-10 finishes at Junior Nationals, AAU and the Volleyball Festival. Today, 39 Hawaii juniors on four Aloha Region teams open play at the USA Volleyball High Performance Championship in Tucson, Ariz. That does not include the 27 Aloha Region players who claimed spots on USA teams via tryouts.

It also does not include Tuileta, who has already switched to his fall sport and is now training at quarterback with the Punahou varsity football team.

"Tui has that rare combination of strength, speed and athleticism," says former University of Hawaii All-American Pono Maa, who has coached Ka Ulukoa with Charlie Jenkins all four years. "Whether it's football or volleyball, coaches find a way to get him on the field or on the court."

Maa especially appreciates Tuileta's composure, competitiveness and ability to "self-correct." He sees a huge future for him in either sport and figures every member of this team — Micah Maa, Evan Enriques and Adrian Faitalia were also all-tournament selections — has the potential to play volleyball in college. A few could go beyond.

It would be hard to argue. At the last Olympics, Hawaii could make a claim to the men's MVP (Clay Stanley) and four key players on the women's silver medal team (Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, Heather Bown, Lindsey Berg and Kim Willoughby).

In other words, Hawaii's impact on the game is way out of whack. For a small, isolated state, it nurtures an inordinate number of elite players. Collegiate and national coaches are begging for more.

Tuileta, Maa and pretty much everybody coaching Hawaii's High Performance kids emphasize that the crucial element for success is to — as Maa puts it — remain "low profile." While opponents focus on hitting and scrimmaging, Hawaii teams such as Ka Ulukoa devote huge chunks of time to serving, passing, setting and defense. Those are usually the less spectacular skills, played closer to the ground and — no surprise here — have little to do with height.

"These are the skills that yield big returns on investment," says Maa, who also appreciates the wisdom of his players, half of whom have parents who coach or played professionally, in college or high school. "These guys understand this, believe in this and work incredibly hard each day to improve on the little things. … There is really no secret to this. If you keep the ball in system longer than your opponent, you will typically come out on top."

Tuileta also credits the coaches: "They teach us the basics. We play ball control because we may not be the biggest team out there, but we've just got to out-heart everybody. That's how you win championships."

Digging is Tuileta's favorite skill, because of the frustration it causes across the net. In that, he is not alone. The most striking aspect of a High Performance practice in Hawaii is the jaw-dropping defense. Only two girls are 6 feet tall and two boys go as high as 6-4, but balls go down hard and fast. They often come back faster.

"It's a pretty high level," says Kaitlyn Ka‘aha‘aina, a Waianae High School senior on the Girls National Youth roster. "It's way higher than club and high school. The best of the best from Hawaii come together."

All eight Tuileta kids play the game and Kiana Tuileta is in Tucson this week with their father, Larry Sr., a coach. Lehua Kadaoka, who guided Piko Ho‘omau to its titles, is also helping, along with Dave Babino, in his fourth year despite not having kids left in the junior ranks.

High Performance plays international rules and lures loads of collegiate coaches. Hawaii teams have been participating since 2003. The region, which includes Maui and Kauai (the Big Island is separate), takes $6 from the dues of each of its 1,800 members to help supplement the cost, which usually runs $1,500 a player. Hawaii's consistent success has justified the investment. Alumnae include Tamari Miyashiro, now a libero on the U.S. Women's National Team, along with former, current and future Rainbow Wahine Dani Mafua, Ginger Long, Lizzie Blake and Tayler Higgins.

"This is to get kids into the (U.S.) pipeline and get as many kids as we can on the Olympic team," Babino says. "Hawaii always does well. They always talk about the whole Hawaii volleyball community at large on the mainland. We have more people on the USA team than any other place. It's unbelievable, the talent here.

"They always wonder how we beat them when we're so short. Well, we keep the ball off the floor. We can't keep up with them at the net, but if we keep the ball off the floor, then they have to hit it three or four times. If there's a 3-1 ratio, that's good for us."

Top 10 Hawaii Finishers Summer 2011

32nd annual USA Volleyball
Girls’ Junior  National Championships
June 25-July 4 at Atlanta

13 American: 9, Asics Rainbows 13 Black
14 National: 1, Team Piko Ho‘omau
15 National: 9, Jammers 15 TeamsRox HI
15 Open: 7, Ka Ulukoa 15 Black
16 Open: 5, Ku‘ikahi 16 RoShambo
18 National: 3, ‘Imi ‘Ike 18s
Boys’ Junior National Championships
June 29-July 6 at Minneapolis

12 Club: 2, Outrigger Red B12
13 Club: 3, Ku‘ikahi 13W RoShambo; 5, Outrigger Red B12; 8, Outrigger White B12
15 Open: 1, Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno
17 Club: 5, Ku‘ikahi 17R RoShambo
18 Club: 6, Ku‘ikahi 18R RoShambo
18 Open: 5, Outrigger 18

38th AAU Girls’ Junior National Championships
June 15-23 at Orlando, Fla.

12 Club: 9, Ka Ulukoa 12 Red Mizuno
12 Open: 5, Ka Ulukoa 12 Black Mizuno
13 Club: 3, Team Piko 13 Keauhou
14 Club: 1, Team Piko 14 Ho‘omau; 9, Ka Ulukoa 14 Red Mizuno
15 Club: 2, Mililani 15s
16 Club: 9, Ka Ulukoa 14 Black Mizuno
17 Club: 9, Maunalani 3rd Degree 17s

2011 Volleyball Festival
June 23-27 at Phoenix

12: 1, Maunalani 3rd Degree; 4, Hokulele 12s Black
15: 10, Maunalani 3rd Degree 15 Black

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