HAWAII GROWN REPORT
COURTESY ST. JOHN'S UNIVERSITY
Moanalua graduate Lena Yee is moving up in the St. John's record book, ranking fourth in digs. "I know I am working on a lot of things, especially my leadership in the back row. I'm the quarterback of the defense."
Yee takes bite of Big Apple
She went all the way to New York to find herself, both as a person and a volleyball player. Lena Yee took what she called a "once in a lifetime opportunity" and has made the most of it, going from somewhat lightly recruited to the highly regarded starting libero for No. 22 St. John's University located in Queens, N.Y.
Yee (Moanalua '05), last season's Big East Libero of the Year, currently ranks fourth on the Red Storm's career list for digs (1,371) with 357 this season (4.64 dpg). Twenty of those came in Sunday's 3-1 win at Cincinnati as St. John's (20-3, 5-1) rebounded from its first Big East defeat, 0-3 at Louisville on Saturday.
"Although we lost, it was good to see where we were at with the other top team in the conference," Yee said of the Cardinals. "It showed us what we need to work on and we learned from it.
"I know I am working on a lot of things, especially my leadership in the back row. I'm the quarterback of the defense. I need to be more vocal, like telling my outside hitters where to hit. If I can work on that, helping my teammates, we all can be a lot better."
After winning the Big East regular-season title for the first time last season, expectations were higher this year. The Red Storm had an ambitious schedule, with 13 of the first 17 nonconference matches on the road.
Included were tournaments at then-No. 6 USC and then-No. 3 Penn State. St. John's went 15-2, with the losses coming to the Women of Troy and Nittany Lions.
But the road trip that set the tone for the season was the one last May to Vietnam. The Red Storm took the silver medal at the VTV Cup, losing in four to the Vietnamese national team in front of a crowd of 2,500.
"We gained so much chemistry from that trip that has helped so this season," said the 5-foot-2 Yee, named the VTV Cup's best receiver, best digger and best libero. "As our coach (JoJo Persico-Smith) tells us, nothing will be crazier than when we played in that tournament, with the fans beating drums and yelling.
"Before our matches now, we talk about how we had to adjust to the food and the travel when we were in Vietnam, and how we were able to tune out the distractions and get into the zone. We've learned to focus on taking care of each other and playing volleyball."
Also on the Vietnam trip was All-Big East first-team pick Patti Hardimon, (Moanalua '03), who finished her eligibility last season. Hardimon, team captain and kills leader as a senior, played two seasons for St. John's after following two seasons.
Also on the roster from Hawaii is freshman defensive specialist/libero Kayla Motoyama (Roosevelt '07). Two others -- Rosalyn Dang (Punahou '00) and Robyn Kurasaki (Maryknoll '00) -- finished their Red Storm careers in 2003.
"I love my Hawaii girls," said Persico-Smith, the 1986 Big East Player of the Year out of Syracuse, who founded the St. John's volleyball program in 1994. "They came 6,000 miles away from home and they bring Hawaii with them. That ohana feeling, the spirit of the islands is here.
"They have such an enthusiasm for volleyball. Whenever I've made practice optionally, all the players from Hawaii always show up. I've been blessed to have them play for us and we hope to have more."
As for her two current island players, "Kayla is a great person and a great student-athlete," Persico-Smith said. "She understands her role and continues to get better every day.
"And Lena is so humble, despite all the accolades. She is one of the best, if not THE best, liberos in the Big East, just a great player to coach. If I tell her she's made a great play, she tells me that she's just doing her job."
Yee is studying sports management with the idea of perhaps becoming a coach. She's also hoping for an opportunity to play professionally overseas when she's finished at St. John's.
"This has been a life-changing experience," Yee said. "My coach has motivated and inspired me. Playing for this team has made me a better person, has changed my outlook on life.
"It's hard work and you do get homesick but I'm so proud I pursued this. I've grown so much. I've learned to take the subway. I love going to Times Square and I love New York cuisine, eating food that I would never eat at home. I've also found that I'm not too fond of snow."
There is one thing she is dreading. Next year's "Senior Night" which traditionally has had a luau theme. Hardimon danced hula last year and Yee expects she might have to do the same.
"I'll have to practice," she said. "Maybe something like 'Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride' would be fun."