Hawaii Girls a Force for Wolf Pack
By Kara LaPoint
There are only 14 women on the Wolf Pack volleyball team, and four of them are from Hawaii - more than any other single state.
For three of those girls, junior Kylie Harrington and freshmen Elissa Ji and Kelly Chang, playing in close vicinity is a familiar concept.
Each hailing from Honolulu, the three played on the same club team together: Jammers Volleyball Club. Though Harrington was older, she said she has known Chang since her freshman year. Ji said she and Chang played together in the same age class for five years.
Tatiana Santiago, meanwhile, played against them, out of Kahuku.
The girls said that having former club-mates on the same team again in college has been beneficial in many ways.
"It was cool to have (Ji and Chang) come and have old teammates back," said Harrington. "We all had the same coaches so we have the same style of play... so we can help each other out."
Chang said that having Ji on the team as a fellow freshman has made the transition into a college program much easier. She also said that Santiago and Harrington's experience has been helpful to her.
For Santiago, simply having others around who share a similar background to hers has enhanced her experience, she said.
"They are kind of like your sisters on the team," Santiago said. "I relate to them a lot."
Each of the girls said Nevada was one of their top choices for college.
Harrington said she decided to come to the school after visiting the campus for a tournament with her team. She said she liked the school, the area and the team the best of any college she was recruited to. Though she said there are an increasing number of Hawaiians going to Nevada, still more choose the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"It's kind of funny," Harrington said. "When I tell people (back home) that I go to Nevada they say, 'Oh, Las Vegas?' "
For Santiago, the college decision did in fact come down to Nevada and UNLV. In the end, she said she liked Nevada's campus better.
Ji said she had wanted to come to Nevada since her freshman year of high school.
Each of the girls also said that Nevada was a good choice because it was relatively close to home, where they said volleyball holds an incredible prominence over most other sports.
"Volleyball is definitely big (at home); probably the top girl's sport," said Harrington, who started playing the sport at age eight in Hawaii.
"Volleyball was huge," Santiago said.
The girls also said that the University of Hawai'i volleyball team holds an equal esteem in their home state.
"They are like celebrities there," Harrington said of the UH team. "They are so big."
Growing up playing volleyball in Hawaii, the UH team cast a big influence on Harrington, Ji, Chang and Santiago's careers, they said. They all said they watched the team frequently, both in person and on television. As a result, they came to look up to the players immensely.
Harrington said she began watching the Rainbow Wahine in seventh grade. She said that when she was younger she used to dream of playing for the Wahine.
Santiago, likewise, said that she dreamed of playing for UH as a child.
Chang said she used to go to the games and hand out lineups for the team beforehand.
But despite their long admiration of the Wahine, the girls are now rivals to the team, a fellow conference foe.
They found themselves going up against the squad, which is ranked no. 3 in the nation, two weeks ago at Virginia Street Gym. For Chang and Ji, it was only their second time playing UH, after playing them in Hawaii earlier this season. For Harrington and Santiago, the match-up is a familiar one. Nonetheless, it remains special in many ways.
Harrington said that because she played with or against many of their players growing up, it is more of an honor to play the team than a nerve-wrecking experience. Santiago agreed, saying that her previous ties to the players make her want to play especially well.
"I was more excited (than nervous) to play them (in our last match-up)," Santiago said. "I grew up with many of them and played them in high school. You definitely want to bring you're a-game when you play people you know."
Chang said that she, too, felt an added pressure to do well because she knew many of the team's players. Nonetheless, she said, "It's good fun" to play friends from home.
For freshman Ji, matching up against the Wahine was intimidating at first.
"It freaked me out," she said. "I didn't think I could play with them. It was hard because I didn't expect to play as much against them (as I did). But it got a lot easier the second time around."
The girls played against UH earlier this fall at Hawaii, where although they were the visiting team, they still had plenty of fans.
"Our whole comp list was full of people just between us four," Harrington said.
Santiago said her whole family and many other friends came to watch her play this year.
"This past time I think I had the loudest cheer in the arena," Santiago said.
Ji said that between family, friends and past coaches cheering her on at the game, she was "out there forever trying to say hi (after the game)."
Each of the girls said they look forward to the next time they get to play Hawaii at home - a place some of them miss very much and others say they may not go back to after graduation.
For Santiago, Hawaii is home, now and always.
"I miss it a lot," she said. "I miss the water, the beach, the sun and my sisters. I am pretty sure I will go back home when I'm done (with school). My whole family is there and I love it."
Santiago said that coming to Nevada was a big adjustment for her, especially since she had never seen snow before.
Chang also said life in Nevada was a big adjustment for her at first, but now she likes it better than back home.
"I don't miss home that much," she said. "But I miss the people and the food."
Ji shared similar sentiment. Though she said she was homesick in the beginning, she now loves Reno.
"This is my new home," she said.
The girls could get another small taste of home next week, when they may face UH at the WAC Championship.