Nov. 2—The first time coach Ka 'ena Keiki saw her play, he was impressed.
It was the fall of 2019. Haiti Tautua 'a was on the other side of the net, and Keiki was the coach at Roosevelt. The teams scrimmaged at the Seariders' gym, where Keiki had been a player.
"I just saw this middle, a Tongan girl, jump out of the gym and hit the ball as hard as any of my seniors, " he recalled.
Keiki asked then-coach Dan Kitashima, "Is this your outside hitter ? He said, 'This is my setter.' She was actually only a freshman."
At the time, Tautua 'a was 5 feet, 9 inches. She grew 3 more inches in the following year and is now a 6-foot junior setter who can touch 10 feet, 2 inches on her vertical. A few more inches and she might be dunking a basketball.
When the coaching position at Keiki's alma mater opened, he put his name in the hat.
"I was at Roosevelt since 2010. They gave me my first chance. But I got the chance to go back to Waianae, " said Keiki, who graduated from the school in 2007 and still resides on the Leeward Coast.
Knowing that Tautua 'a would be there didn't hurt when the Seariders hired him.
"She was one of my biggest reasons. I have a setter. I don't have to look for one. It's very hard to find someone to run the team, " he said. "It's just the way she carries herself. She analyzes the weak points. On and off the court, how she talks to her teammates. She doesn't talk to bring you down. She talks to bring you up. She's the first one in, last one out. First to be in a drill, always asking questions and wants to be better."
When Waianae began preseason workouts, Tautua 'a and three of her teammates were already in prime shape after playing with Spike and Serve volleyball club year-round. Keiki planned to run a 6-2 offense.
"I knew after the second day. We were running 6-2 in a scrimmage. We were struggling and she said, 'Coach, I want to run a 5-1 and run this team.' I didn't take it as an offense. That's what you call leadership, " Keiki said. "She took the burden to put everyone on her shoulders, to sacrifice so she can be the quarterback of this team."
So far, so good. The Seariders are 4-0 in OIA West play, and though they haven't been on the radar of most Top 10 voters, the potential for upheaval in the West remains.
Waianae is perfectly comfortable being out of the spotlight. So is Tautua 'a, who, according to her father, is more subdued than older sister Heipua, who plays for San Diego State. She's modest enough that she never mentions the 30-plus Division I college scholarship offers, or her commitment to Pitt—unless she is asked.
"They have Alexis Akeo from Kamehameha. She actually brought up my name with them, " Tautua 'a said of the former Star-Advertiser All-State setter. "They were talking and the coaches scheduled a visit."
Tautua 'a and her father, Francis, went to the East Coast.
"It was Oct. 7, right before fall break. I loved everything up there. It was beautiful. It was cold. They have lakes, too. It's nice, " she said.
Akeo's older sister, Kamalani, is a coach there. Maybe a pipeline is opening to Panthers country. Even if that means a longer trip for mom, Brandy, and dad to see their second-oldest child play college ball.
"My dad's happy wherever I go. He also loves it there. My mom loves it, the coaches and the players, " Tautua 'a said.
Among the offers she turned down were schools in her top six : Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Marquette and USD.
Pretty good for a youngster who began playing in fifth grade with Kulia volleyball club.
Now, Tautua 'a has an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team, not that she talks about it.
"She said if she makes it, would be for her school and her community. She's confident and she wants to be an example, " Francis Tautua 'a said. "A lot of the younger girls ask her questions about how to go to college, how to get (recruited ) by a D-I school."
Tautua 'a admits that she can be shy, but that didn't stop her from connecting with college coaches.
"You want to keep in touch with coaches. Email them, send videos of yourself, " she said. "I looked up coaches and their email addresses. I can email and text people. I'm good at that."
Tautua 'a and her sister began playing with Spike and Serve four years ago after coach Kevin Wong saw Heipua play a high school match. The travel tournaments and exposure have been invaluable.
The club played in multiple tournaments on the mainland and trained regularly while the islands were in restriction mode during the pandemic.
"Kevin has helped in the process to get her connections to colleges. Haiti sent her video to 80 D-I schools. Right before we went up to Las Vegas and Florida, she sent one more email to the schools to invite them to watch her, " Francis said. "Most of them replied back. We came home with 30 offers. She talked to every single one of them."
Before that, when the world was at a standstill, it was Francis who kept momentum rolling.
"(The pandemic ) gave me a break on everything, but I also did training and working on my volleyball skills with my dad. There's a tent on the side of our house with weights and we have a treadmill. We live across a park so we train there, " Tautua 'a said.
For Tautua 'a, the mainland trips—eight this year alone—and the long drives from Waianae to town for club training add up for all parents. Dad works in maintenance at Marriott Hotels.
"My parents have sacrificed everything for me. I love them so much, " said Tautua 'a, who maintains a 3.8 grade-point average on top of all her volleyball.
Sister Heipua, she adds, fueled her dreams and paved the way.
"She was always my idol. She's a good sister. I'm the mean one, but she still loves me, " Tautua 'a said.
Waianae's Spike and Serve players—Tautua 'a, 6-foot outside hitter Nico Clarke, 5-10 opposite Lele Krug and 5-11 outside hitter Larrynn Joseph-Rodrigues—provide the kind of height, talent and experience that could lift the Seariders to a new level. Even with the talent and coaching of years past, Waianae has won the OIA girls volleyball title just once, in 2016, in D-II.
"We have a goal. Coach actually writes it on a whiteboard, " Tautua 'a said. "We're hoping and working we get there, winning the OIA and hopefully states, as well."
HAITI TAUTUA 'A Waianae girls volleyball—Position : Setter—Class : Junior—Height : 6-0—College : Committed to Pitt Favorites—Movie /shows : "I like the Avengers movies. I like 'Iron Man.'
She also likes hair and makeup videos, and mukbeng (food ) videos.—Food : "My mom's spaghetti, musubi from 7-Eleven and strawberry dream smoothie from Jamba Juice."—Music artist : Ariana Grande ("Rain on Me " with Lady Gaga ).—GPA : 3.8.—Class : Photography.—Teacher : "We have to say a name ? I love them all."—New life skill : "I got more organized. We cleaned a lot."—Hidden talent : Baking. "I like the pre-made chocolate chip cookies and brownies. It's 15 to 20 minutes in the oven. My whole family loves it."—Time machine : "I would go back to when my grandpa (Uhila Tautua 'a ) was alive. I would tell him about all my success in life, everything that's happened with volleyball and college."
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Nov. 2—The first time coach Ka 'ena Keiki saw her play, he was impressed.