Kaili Pila worked for everything she got on the volleyball court, whether it was playing time or her scholarship to Columbia Basin.
The recent Kamehameha graduate and 5-foot-9 outside hitter signed with the Hawks (8-8 last season), who are based in Pasco, Wash., where the school enrollment is just more than 11,000.
“I started volleyball in the 6th grade and didn’t want to play at first,” she said. “My mom (Anna Golden Kaaua) encouraged me just do the whole season. By the end, I loved it, and the competition was super cool.”
Her mom is the Keaau High canoe paddling coach along with her husband Grant Kaaua, Pila’s stepdad. The Kaaua couple also coach for Keaukaha Canoe Club, and Pila has a few Aunty Maile Mauhili/Moku O Hawaii gold medals.
Pila also played two years of softball in middle school at Kamehameha and was on the water polo team, but volleyball stole her heart. She got her height from her mom, who’s 5-10 and played volleyball and swam at Hilo High, and her dad Jason Pila, who’s 5-11.
Pila was on Kamehameha’s BIIF championship team in 2019. She was also on the unprecedented Pilipaa club team that same year, which won the Haili AA title, the first high school squad to ever pull off that accomplishment in the tourney’s 62-year history.
Of course, anybody who knows anything about Big Island volleyball would immediately know that Nani Spaar powered both of those teams.
Spaar, who’s at Division I Santa Clara, was the hammer on a talented Pilipaa team that saw a host of players land college scholarships, including Kamehameha’s Tiani Bello (Eckerd College, Division I in Florida), Laurie McGrath (San Francisco, beach Division I), Hilo’s Mia Takai (UH-Hilo, Division II), Kealakehe’s Keala Wright (Sheridan College, Juco in Wyoming), and Kaysha Kahai-Enos, State College of Florida, Juco).
Pila had to wait her turn for playing time, but on the plus side, she practiced with the 6-foot Spaar, who’ll go down as one of the Big Island’s greats at outside hitter.
“It was really good to play with Nani at Kamehameha and club. She made me a lot better,” Pila said. “She was the horse and hammer. I was the youngest on the team (at Pilipaa). It was nice to watch all of them, how they hit, their approach, how quick they were, their passing. My serve-receive got better playing with the older girls. They were two years older than me at Pilipaa.
“That year (2019) was one of my best. It helped me improve my game 100 percent. Iron sharpens iron. I learned so much from that team. My skill set improved 100 percent. I had a lot of bench time but didn’t complain. I took it as motivation. I would go up against Nani Spaar. Practice is what meant the most. When I did play in a game, I knew it was my time to shine, and I definitely took advantage of that.”
That type of mindset was something Pilipaa coach Chris Leonard appreciated. Club sports are not like AYSO soccer, where everybody plays. In club, like in BIIF and college, you work to earn playing time.
“When she joined our team before her junior year, she was less experienced than the other girls,” Leonard said. “But you couldn’t find a more team-first, energetic, coachable kid.
“She worked extraordinarily hard, tried out for our team, and made our team. She didn’t get a lot of playing time, but she just worked really hard and improved her game. She was a joy to coach. She came to the gym with a positive attitude every day and tried to get better. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to coach her.”
At first, Pila was hoping to play ball at a junior college on the West Coast, preferably in San Diego. But those schools don’t normally offer athletic aid, so she looked at Washington and Oregon.
Then the next thing Pila knew Hawks coach Dishondra Goree was casting out a recruiting line after seeing her profile on ncsasports.org.
During the crazy coronavirus pandemic sports year of 2020, Pila played ball with Carl Carpenter-Kabalis’ HI-Intensity club team.
“I learned a lot,” Pila said. “She saw my potential and put me in a different position (from middle blocker) at outside hitter. My passing improved, and she wanted me to be a six-rotation player.
“Columbia Basin liked my tempo and arm swing and my vertical was pretty nice from what they could tell from the film. My height was a bonus, and they saw I worked hard to hit the ball. I also have a nice jump float. Coach Chris taught me that. They loved my potential in serve-receive, and that boosted my confidence because I want to be a six-rotation player.”
Pila plans to major in business and minor in accounting. She already jokes that everyone will ask her to do their taxes after she gets certified.
She didn’t take a recruiting trip but connected with her teammates and roommate online. Pila also learned that two of the three sophomores signed Division I scholarships.
“I’m looking forward to living on my own,” she said. “There’s so much opportunity. I’m really excited to do things on my own. I know I’ll have my teammates to help me out. I already connected with my roommate. It’s cool to have welcome arms.”
Pila, who leaves July 13, will be the only one from Hawaii on the roster, so she’s bringing Hawaii to Columbia Basin.
“I’ll bring my Hawaiian flag, make my teammates beef stew Hawaiian style, and bring Big Island candies and Macadamia chocolate covered nuts,” she said. “I’m really excited.”