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    The 5-foot-5 Katie Sieler is almost a foot shorter than Nikki Taylor, but they complement each other on and off the court.
    The 5-foot-5 Katie Sieler is almost a foot shorter than Nikki Taylor, but they complement each other on and off the court.

They are unconventional as conventional can be.

The pairing of sophomore Katie Spieler and freshman Nikki Taylor for sand volleyball is one of the traditional pairings in the sport, that of a taller player with a smaller player.

But there’s nothing traditional when it comes to a nearly 12-inch differential.

Spieler may be a few grains of sand taller than 5 feet 5. Taylor is a definite 6-31⁄2.

But it works. Really well.

The surprise is just how well, considering it’s Taylor’s first time playing on the beach for more than just fun. Yet, the two have been solid as Hawaii’s No. 2 team, going 24-6 and reaching the final of three of the four pairs tournaments in which the No. 3 Rainbow Wahine have competed this season.

Of the six losses, two each have come against pairs from teams ranked ahead of Hawaii: No. 1 USC and No. 2 Pepperdine. Two others — perhaps more frustratingly — have been to the SandBows’ No. 1 team of Brittany Tiegs and Karissa Cook (25-2).

1300 The Strand, Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Pool A: No. 2 Pepperdine (10-1), No. 3 Hawaii (13-2), No. 6 Cal State Bakersfield (5-6), No. 7 Arizona (6-5)
Pool B: No. 1 USC (14-1), No. 4 Loyola Marymount (5-7), No. 5 UCLA (6-6), No. 8 Santa Clara (5-4)
Pairs tournament
Hawaii seeded third behind USC and Pepperdine
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"Britt and Karissa are an amazing team, so it’s a really good challenge for us," said Taylor, an all-region selection at outside hitter last fall for the Hawaii indoor team. "And it is really good that we are getting to the finals against the top team.

"But it does get old (losing to Tiegs-Cook)."

"We’re always working hard to beat the other top teams, and Karissa and Brittany are phenomenal," added Spieler, a sand-only player and niece of former Rainbow Wahine indoor standout Lisa Strand-Ma’a. "It is frustrating that we can’t finish it in the final, but we hope to keep getting better and peak at the nationals. And hopefully we’ll beat them there."

The SandBows’ top duos have another shot at an all-Hawaii final this Sunday at the USAV Beach Collegiate Challenge in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Saturday’s team dual competition precedes Sunday’s pairs event, with the results from Saturday creating the seeds for Sunday.

Hawaii (13-2) is seeded third and is in the same pool as No. 2 Pepperdine, sixth-seeded Cal State Bakersfield and seventh-seeded Arizona. The other pool has top-ranked and top-seeded USC and No. 5 UCLA.

Among the goals for Hawaii this season is to reach the AVCA National Championship as a team. The top two schools from the West advance, with a third as an at-large, along with three teams from the East; 10 pairs from outside the six schools that qualify also advance to the pairs portion of the national tournament.

Should Hawaii not make it as a team, SandBows coach Scott Wong feels that both Tiegs-Cook and Spieler-Taylor will qualify. (Only the designated Nos. 1 and 2 pairs are eligible for consideration).

But that’s not the way that Spieler and Taylor want to get to Gulf Shores, Ala., site of the national tournament May 2-4.

"We’ve all worked so hard as a team," Spieler said. "The (sand-only) girls worked hard in the fall, conditioning three times a week, running sprints, both sand and on the track, lifting, with mini tournaments against each other.

"Then we had another ‘double days’ when the indoor joined us. You gotta be committed to the sport."

It’s the reason Spieler ended up committing to Hawaii, albeit late in the decision process. Named the Scholar-Athlete of the Year by the Santa Barbara Athletics Roundtable, the 2012 Dos Pueblos High honor student was deciding between playing indoor, likely at an Ivy League school, or sand on the West Coast. The latter option was limited, as few colleges had committed to having a collegiate sand team in 2012; the family connection and the familiarity with the beach lifestyle made it an easy choice for Spieler.

"My aunt was really excited when I was coming for my (recruiting) visit. I stayed with them," Spieler said of Strand-Ma‘a, who is married to former UH volleyball standout Pono Ma’a. "She told me about the coaches, the culture of Hawaii and that UH is a great place to play sports, especially volleyball. I really wanted to play beach — it’s my passion — and I couldn’t be happier."

Taylor, a Kaiser High product, was indoor all the way. Her choices included top programs in Hawaii, Nebraska (where she has family), Pepperdine (where her older brother Josh plays volleyball) and UCLA.

"My heart was always UH," Taylor said. "A piece of it belonged to Nebraska, and when they came to play (March 20-22), I did think, ‘That could have been me on that side.’ But this was the right choice. I’ve said this from the beginning that it was the right fit."

While Spieler grew up playing on the beach, Taylor said her sand experience was more goofing around with her brother and father on the Outrigger Canoe Club sand court. When Wong, the associate indoor coach, asked last fall who would be interested in playing sand in the spring, Taylor walked to his side of the court.

"I was always interested in it and it’s great cross-training," Taylor said. "It’s helped my overall game. And it’s really two different sports.

"As a right-side player (indoor) I didn’t have to pass. On the beach, you cannot hide. I have to pass half the court, touch the ball every play, set. There’s a real physicality to it."

Taylor said she’s improved her vertical by more than 6 inches and now touches 10-2. She hopes her improved passing will allow her to play on the left side this fall.

"That’s the goal," Taylor said.

Both Spieler and Taylor said they are surprised and not surprised at their success.

"I’m not surprised at our success as a team, but I am a little surprised at mine because I had never really played before. Let me tell you, my mind-set from the beginning was ‘work on setting, setting, setting.’"

It has led to opponents having to readjust their strategy. The conventional thinking is "Big players can’t pass, short players can’t hit," but with Taylor able to pass well and Spieler taking big swings, the opposition isn’t sure whom to serve.

"I was always a libero, did a little setting, so what I needed to improve on was my hitting," Spieler said. "I love that I get to hit. I think we surprise people because Nikki is known as an indoor player and I’m a little smaller.

"She’s very tall for a tall player and I’m small for a small player. But it works."

"It’s ridiculous how much fun it is to be together," Taylor said. "We were together a lot during double days and I liked the way she played and the way she complemented me."

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