Hakala comes in from the cold
The opposite hitter isn't missing the snow of his native Finland
The Arctic Circle may be the antipodes of Antarctica, but Lauri Hakala can relate to the movie "March of the Penguins."
Hakala knows cold.
Negative-20 degrees cold.
Long Beach State at Hawaii
When: Today and tomorrow, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Both matches live, KFVE (Ch. 5).
Radio: Both matches live, KKEA (1420-AM)
Series: Tied, 29-29. UH leads 15-11 in Honolulu.
While fulfilling his compulsory Finnish military duty, Hakala spent a year in the Arctic as a platoon leader and reconnaissance officer. The nights were long, the snow was 2-3 feet deep and cross-country skiing was a survival tactic, not an Olympic sport.
"You're cold and hungry and you want to go home," Hakala said. "I like snow, but ... I was thinking it would be nice to play volleyball where it was warm."
Enter Hawaii, where a cold night in Manoa might be 62 degrees and require a light blanket, not thermal underwear. Where English spoken with an accent is not an oddity.
Enter University of Hawaii volleyball, which has a good reputation "even in Europe," Hakala said.
Coming from a country known more for excellence in winter sports than summer ones, Hakala -- a member of Finland's beach volleyball national team -- found a home some 6,800 miles away.
The junior has also found a comfort level after moving from left-side hitter to opposite for the Warriors, replacing injured senior Matt Bender. It has shown in his production -- he's gone from averaging 1.86 kills per game to 4.06 -- and his hitting consistency -- .394, up from .266.
In last Friday's win at then-No. 1 Pepperdine, Hakala had 15 kills and hit .407 as the Warriors swept the Waves.
"The whole team was amazing," Hakala said. "The first night (a 3-2 loss), we didn't play our best. The second was very good, probably the best that a team I've played for has ever played."
The 23-year-old Hakala has played on a number of teams in a number of sports, many that would be associated with his native Finland. The Pieksamaki curling rink is some 200 yards from his house, the ice skating rink across a lake named Pieksanjarvi.
But Hakala's family home is on the shore, where he developed his love of volleyball, particularly beach volleyball. Although he's a hockey fanatic -- "I love watching the Finnish men's team," he said -- Hakala prefers sports in which he can excel.
"I'm very competitive," he said. "I tried different sports and I pretty much suck at most of them. I don't like sports I'm not good at.
"Volleyball ... the plan after graduating is to go back and play in Europe. If I want to get to a higher (pro) level, it would be easier for me in beach. Do I have a chance? You always have a chance."
The Hawaii coaches took a chance on Hakala, recruiting him on the basis of videotapes, references and e-mail responses. If he had so chosen, Hakala could have answered in one of the five languages in which he considers himself fluent -- Finnish, English, Swedish, German and Estonian -- or the two others in which he is conversant -- Russian and German.
Not surprisingly, Hakala is majoring in speech and communications, with a minor in German. His post-volleyball career goal is to go into the diplomatic service where "I can travel and use languages," said Hakala, who expects to graduate in December 2007 after just 3 1/2 years.
Hakala and senior middle Mauli'a La Barre occasionally speak Russian during matches. La Barre served part of his LDS mission in Samara, Russia, and Hakala is in his fourth semester of studying the language.
"He speaks it very well for someone who hasn't lived there," La Barre said. "During a match, we might say, 'Good job' or 'Hit there.'
"He's shared a lot of experiences and stories that I can relate to since I've been to Europe, been to places he's lived and he's been to places I have. Plus, he's so far from home and I tell him I know exactly how he feels. Sometimes you just miss certain things.
"I'm glad he's here. He's been a great asset to our team. He's a strong, physical player."
Hakala has been called the "Flying Finn" but says that the nickname belongs only to the great skier Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in downhill.
His Warrior teammates think he flies, particularly when hitting the "D set" from behind the 3-meter line. They appreciate Hakala's athleticism and power.
"He's awesome to watch, has a lot of fire," Bender said. "And he really hits the ball full-bore."
"You don't want to be in the way when he hits the ball, and I've been in the way several times (in practice)," senior libero Alfred Reft said. "Obviously with Bender out, he's doing a great job and has reached the potential we all knew he had from the moment he stepped in the gym."
Hakala could relinquish his starting opposite position as early as tonight when No. 6 Hawaii (5-4, 3-3) hosts No. 4 Long Beach State (11-2, 6-1). Bender has returned to practice and may play his first match of the season against the 49ers.
"The good thing about Lauri is he can play the other (left-side) position," Hawaii coach Mike Wilton said. "I'm happy the he's more comfortable playing, felt that last year he was trying to figure things out.
"He's in his comfort zone now."
Hakala doesn't care where he plays as long as he plays.
"Whenever you're playing, you're happy," Hakala said. "This year, we're having a lot of fun playing volleyball and I'm happy with Hawaii volleyball.
"We are finding ourselves and we're finding our games. This week is another chance to see where we are."
Hakala had thoughts of leaving after last season for a variety of reasons. He is happy he stayed, although he does miss Finland.
"Sometimes, I feel really far away from home, then I realize that I AM half a world away," he said. "When you have to sit in a plane for 25 hours, you realize how far it is.
"I've seen parts of 'March of the Penguins.' I know the feeling."