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College coaches look for talent at Hawaii Volleyball Combine

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Division I college coaches have made their way to the Hawaii Volleyball Combine every year.

Oregon State, Army, Navy and Montana State were among them on Sunday at Manoa Valley District Park gym. So were coaches from a variety of levels, including former Roosevelt standout player Joby Ramos, now an assistant coach at Iowa Western Community College.

“It’s been over 10 years now. Since then, I’ve played at Pacific. I played at Hawaii for two years. Taught here for four years at Kalakaua (Middle School). I was at Nebraska for four years and one year here (Iowa Western),” Ramos said.

Connecting with coaches and former players in the islands is an enjoyable process for Ramos, who was just starting high school when the combine began 14 years ago.

“It’s a little bit of everything. I get to see friends and family again. The volleyball community is so special. Everybody, half the people I see in here, it’s all friends and family or coaches that I’ve played with or under. What’s kind of nice, too, all the friends that I make, the coaches that are here, I can introduce them and get them connected,” Ramos said.

The depth of talent in the islands makes it a worthwhile trip.

“The two big boxes for us that we have to check off are being athletic and having a good attitude,” he added. “That’s the biggest thing, maintaining a good culture. It keeps us sane as coaches, but keeps the girls happy, making sure that they’re working hard. If they can’t do those two things, then it’s really hard for us to send them up.”

Unlike most JUCOs, Iowa Western has dormitories.

“All of our players dorm on campus. It’s a really nice campus. I hate to flex on us, but our dorms are even nicer than UH,” Ramos said. “Way nicer.”

Oregon State assistant coach Peter Manguiat returned to the combine for the first time in three years.

“It’s the people. They make it great. There’s good players, but the people that organize this are amazing,” Manguiat said. “They really show love to the coaches that come.”

The academies made their presence felt, with Navy assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Taylor van der Biezen and Army head coach Alma Kovaci Lee.

“The biggest thing is that we’re more than just volleyball at Navy. Everyone’s coming for the same reason. It’s not who has the biggest scholarship or the best program. You want to go there because you want to serve your country,” van der Biezen said. “Annapolis is beautiful.”

When Lee walked into the room, the friendly yet competitive banter went up a notch or two. Van der Biezen turned and showed a slogan on the back of her shirt: “Beat Army.”

Lee coached at Colgate as an assistant before landing at West Point, coaching Army’s team for the past 19 years.

“I absolutely love it. Any job at any of the academies is great,” Lee said. “I think all the academies offer unique opportunities, especially for people here in the islands. They have so much talent and sometimes it’s hard to get to the mainland. We are lucky enough to come here and help the islands by providing opportunities.”

Combine co-director Lynden Keala invited Lee to the first event and she has kept returning. Lee recruited one of Keala’s daughters.

“She played for Colgate and she did incredible,” Lee recalled. “Colgate, Army and Navy are all in the same conference.”

Montana State is under a new head coach, Jerry Wagner.

“He was an assistant at Minnesota. He’s been here before,” said Taylor Els, assistant coach at Montana State. “He’s great. Super smart, cares about the girls a lot, and just really knowledgeable.”

The success of the basketball and football teams, Els added, is indicative of the potential for women’s volleyball.

Els relishes the natural beauty and activities surrounding the campus at Montana State. She has also enjoyed the working vacation in sunny Hawaii.

“My coach let me go. I’m worried next year he’s going to want to come,” she said. “I’m going to tell him it was terrible so he lets me come back again.”

Els noted that the Bobcats are specifically searching for setters and liberos.

“Hawaii players have really great ball control, really tough girls. They’ve been playing since Friday, and they don’t look tired. I know they are,” Els said. “They’re so tough that you can’t tell.”

Oregon State is recruiting with an open mind.

“We’re evaluating every position and every class, especially nowadays with the transfer portal. You never know who is going to stay and who’s going to leave, so we have to make sure we have eyes on everybody,” Manguiat said.

The backlog of college players who were granted an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic has tightened up opportunities for high school prospects.

“The last year that we’re really going to see it is 2024. I think there’s going to be a lot of players leaving college programs at that point. There’s going to be a lot of big classes in that next year,” Manguiat noted. “We want to explore both options and invest in the future, because if you only look at the 21- and 22-year-old players (transfers), then you’re going to have 10, 12 people leaving your program.”

Pacific Lutheran coach Kevin Aoki continues to return. After 27 seasons at the helm the 1980 ‘Iolani graduate has seven island players on his roster.

“Soon to be eight,” he said. “In our conference there’s probably 20 girls from Hawaii.”

Since year one, Hawaii players have been crucial to his roster.

“Tessa Onaga’s mother (Kory) was on my first team,” Aoki said. “My current libero, Halle Hetzler, is from Le Jardin. She was the conference Player of the Year as a libero.”

With his brother, Darren, as a volunteer assistant coach, Aoki’s teams have carved out a unique niche. As the showcase on Sunday featured 18- and 17-under teams, the coaches absorbed everything they could see.

“What they’ve started has continued to grow,” Aoki said of the combine. “They’re doing it for the love of the sport, for the future generation, and they connect the coaches, too,” he said.

Hawaii Prep World

Hawaii Prep World

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