Familiar territory: Kealakehe senior Kaiawe signs with UH-Hilo volleyball team

  • Before she gets to UH-Hilo, Aulike Kaiawe would like her senior season to be one to remember at Kealakehe. (Rick Ogata/Courtesy Photo)

  • Kealakehe senior Aulike Kaiawe earned UH-Hilo coach Chris Leonard's trust while playing with his club team, Pilipaa, the past four years. (Rick Ogata/Courtesy Photo)

Kealakehe senior Aulike Kaiawe signed with the UH-Hilo volleyball team, a connection that worked out for both parties.

The 5-foot-8 setter has the opportunity to play in front of family and friends.

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UHH coach Chris Leonard doesn’t have to worry about a background character check on Kaiawe, who played for his Pilipaa club team for four years.

“I know she’s a hard worker and super coachable,” he said. “She checks all the boxes for things you look for in a player. I know certain characteristics are there. She expressed interest in staying home, and we were very interested in pursuing her.”

Kaiawe was looking at a few other schools, but the COVID-19 pandemic dried up those opportunities, with the NCAA allowing athletes an extra year of eligibility.

“It feels really good, especially given the opportunity to stay home and represent where I came from and the community to give back to them,” Kaiawe said. “With COVID, a lot of seniors were able to stay and schools didn’t have roster openings. I’m lucky to come to the Vulcans. I’m thankful for that.”

The difference between high school and college is apparent with a glance at UHH’s roster.

Kendall Kott is UHH’s starting setter and had a great freshman year, setting the school record with 1,274 assists. When Kaiawe gets to UHH, Kott could still have three seasons left. Kaiawe will be in a good position to sit and learn but will still have competition when Kott leaves.

The Vulcans also have setters Kamryn Mitchell, a sophomore, California, and Teia Magaoay, a freshman. Both are from California and will have experience in the system before Kaiawe’s arrival. Both are accomplished setters who won league titles and played club ball.

But Kaiawe has played with older competition while playing for Pilipaa.

“When I was 15, I played in the Haili and I played against the Vulcan team,” she said. “I was confident who I was playing. I’m excited.”

The Vulcans have been blessed with depth, and Leonard is a fan of players pushing each other in practice to earn playing time.

“She’ll have the opportunity to compete,” he said. “The difference between college and club is sometimes you’re the setter and that’s it. When you get into the college environment, you’re competing every day against older, more experienced players. It’s tough. But she’s stepped up and she’s fearless. Aulike knows she’ll have to compete. I’m confident she’ll be able to do that.”

Kaiawe’s parents, Renee Veincent and Wendall Kaiawe, are glad their daughter is staying at home.

“They really wanted me to stay at home,” she said. “They’re happy they can watch my games.”

She grew up around volleyball, starting at 8 years old with Hoopa, coached by Ainsley Keawekane. Her uncle is mayoral candidate Ikaika Marzo, who played for Pahoa back in the day. She also paddles for Kai Opua and was bummed when the Moku O Hawaii season was canceled.

The biggest disappointment was last year’s BIIF semifinal loss to Waiakea. Twice, Kealakehe served for match point, only to watch the Warriors tie it and eventually rally for a five-set win.

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The BIIF season may take shape next year, and Kaiawe is already looking forward to go out with a blast.

“I’m super excited to have a season, my last year,” she said. “Our entire goal was to get the school a BIIF banner. Hopefully, it’ll be our year.”

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