Morgan tries to fill big shoes
Welcome to the Pacific West Conference, Julie Morgan.
Now get in line.
Morgan took over the Hawaii-Hilo volleyball program this summer after local legend Sharon Peterson retired, leaving Salt Lake Community College to return home. She knew about the strength of the conference that rode Hawaii's passion for volleyball to a national championship in four of the past five years.
"It is like nothing has changed," Morgan said. "Coming back to the islands I see familiar faces everywhere, and they still have a passion for the game that is unique to the islands. If you are going to coach volleyball, you want to do it in Hawaii against the best."
Morgan, who prepped at Punahou under Peterson, has won at every stop of her volleyball career, first winning a national title as a player for USC in 1976, then coaching Illinois State to eight NCAA tournament appearances. Her last three years were spent at Salt Lake Community College compiling a 66-55 record in three years in a conference she compares to the PacWest.
Her winning ways may come to a brief end this year.
Morgan figures to take her lumps after taking over a program that won three conference games last year and largely took a year off from recruiting because it was without a coach. Assistant coach Kawaileleohiilawe handled the duties and will stay on with Morgan as an assistant after filling the back of her roster with players willing to take a chance on a program without a coach.
Morgan says she expects to suffer a few losses at the hands of BYUH's Wilfred Navalta, Chaminade's Glennie Adams and Hawaii Pacific's Tita Ahuna, but she also promises to fight back when presented with a bloody nose.
"I haven't been one to shy away from different challenges," Morgan said. "Anyone who knows me knows that I am going to compete and compete hard. Right now, my only goals are to improve the program each year. Then we will win."
Morgan meets Ahuna at the Hawaiian Style Classic this weekend, where she might want to ask for a few tips, whether the veteran program-builder needs them or not.
Ahuna, who is starting her eighth year, was the last new hire at a college program in Hawaii, turning Hawaii Pacific into a national champion after just two years. Morgan expects the same out of herself, only she will do it her way.
That way starts with recruiting, which is a good thing, because she will lose five seniors after this season and two more next year. Having spent the last three years dealing with the turnover that comes with guiding a junior college program, her new rivals figure it won't take Morgan long.
"It is going to be tough on her," Ahuna said. "But she will raise the level of play in the conference that much more, and with her junior college contacts, she will probably do it quickly. I'm happy for her and UH-Hilo."
Even the reigning king of the conference says he is keeping an eye on his new fodder.
"With Julie Morgan coming in it is going to add some excitement and enthusiasm to the conference," Navalta said. "It was only a matter of time before Hilo would rise up again, and in one or two years she will be very competitive in the conference."
Don't think that Morgan has already thrown in the cards for this season, though. Hilo athletic director Kathleen McNally went into the hiring process believing that her 8-18 team's upset of BYUH at Hilo last year was better described as "they finally came to play" than "on any given day."
"It is pretty encouraging," Morgan said. "People will say we are too small or too short, but we have a good group of returning players. When I met them they were ready to be very physical, and that's me. Having physical teams is a part of why I have been successful."
Morgan will spend this season with an eye on recruiting, and says she will be looking to counter Navalta's ownership of China and Ahuna's Brazilian pipeline with a mix of local and mainland recruits. But she realizes that the bottom line is that there is no room for charity on your roster if you expect to compete in the PacWest. The last roster spot is nearly as important as the first.
"We should get a good mix of local kids; that's something we will work hard to do," Morgan said. "There is a place in my heart that wants to load up on local kids to take advantage of the talent here, but I can't just take a kid unless they bring something to the table. They should come out to a game and see if they think they can compete, because not everybody can at this level."
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BYUH (27-2, 9-1 PacWest)
The Seasiders were loaded with freshmen last year, and every coach knows that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Well, now those freshmen are sophomores, only they carry a national championship with them.
"Whatever we have is relative to what other teams have," Navalta said. "But we should be all right. The last two weeks of training have been one of the better two weeks since I've been here. The girls are pretty quiet, but they are feisty and work hard."
Two of those sophomores, Yu Chuan Weng and Chun Yi Lin, may be the best two players in the conference after being named AVCA first-team All-Americans last year. Weng was the AVCA's freshman of the year and both made the Elite Eight all-tournament team. Lin broke the conference record for hitting percentage last year.
Senior Ashley Moeai returns to man the spot between the Chinese phenoms, keeping the front line the class of the conference, if not the nation. The other spot on the front line is still up for grabs.
The Seasiders' biggest losses came in the backcourt, where defensive specialist Leiau Meatoga graduated and backup setter Crystal Caseboldt will sit out the season because of a herniated disc.
The losses make setter Kaala Lo that much more important. Lo, who was also on the Elite Eight all-tournament team, missed half of the conference season last year, but was spelled by Caseboldt. Should Lo go down again this year, Navalta will be forced to throw freshman Lesina Funaki, who prepped at Kahuku, into the mix. Funaki is young, but Navalta has already taught the PacWest what happens when you think his group lacks experience.
"BYU will definitely be better. They are hands down the best in the conference," Ahuna said. "Wilfred has always set the standard since my first year here."
Hawaii Pacific (14-9, 6-4)
When Hawaii Pacific won national titles in 1998 and 2000, Ahuna didn't dwell on them, believing that each new year presents new challenges.
So Ahuna is not going to use being left out of the NCAA tournament last year as motivation, either.
"We never talk about that; it is just not something that comes up," Ahuna said, "But that was a tough one on me. I recruited really hard this year and was very fortunate to get the players I got."
Ahuna needed to recruit hard after losing two-time AVCA All-America middle blocker Susy Garbelotti, who made up 33 percent of the team's offense last year, to graduation. Going into the season without the conference's biggest weapon doesn't make Ahuna happy, but the rest of the conference can see a scenario where it makes Ahuna's group even stronger.
"You don't lose Susy Garbelotti without feeling it," said Western New Mexico coach Jim Callender, who makes his trip to Hawaii in early October. "But it may force them to spread it around more and become that much more dangerous."
What will make the Sea Warriors more dangerous is that the Brazilian pipeline is flowing again. Ahuna rode the backs of Brazilian players to her first two national titles and has stocked her roster with even more.
The biggest acquisitions give HPU the biggest front line in the conference.
Barbara Martin stands 6-2 and comes in from Curitiba, Brazil, to join fellow Brazilians Paula Nascimento (6-2) and Flavia Brakling (6-0). Martin mans the middle while Nascimento and Brakling provide the power from the outsides. As if having some of the best Brazil has to offer isn't enough, Ahuna brought 6-2 Yugoslavian Nadica Karleusa from Missouri Baptist to take up the other middle blocker spot.
PacWest first-teamer Vera Oliveira, another Brazilian, is back to distribute the ball after a year of feeding Garbelotti. Backup setter Mahealani Rawlins of Molokai is back for her second season as the anchor of the backcourt. Rawlins is still looking for her first collegiate kill, but led the team in digs last year.
Chaminade (15-8, 6-4)
The Silverswords are not content with just an appearance in the NCAA tournament and have done the things to ensure the conference knows it.
Head coach Glennie Adams ignored rumors that had her leaving the school to take over at Hilo during the offseason, instead staying on the task of replacing middle blocker Audrey Brady.
Adams brought in two high-profile recruits, two of them middle blockers, to make the team appear even stronger than last year. Patty Hardimon joined the program from Moanalua to get a shot at filling Brady's vacancy and compete with junior college transfer Amy Richelderfer.
Adams could concentrate on recruiting to fill needs because the spots around middle blocker are set. PacWest first-teamer Valasi Sepulona returns to take one end of the net while Kahala Kabalis covers the other.
The duo led Chaminade to a 14-3 record last year before HPU and BYUH put it back in its place. Adams hopes Brady's replacement will be able to provide another option.
Returning to the libero spot is junior Kalae Araujo, who is expected to get into the lineup as a defensive specialist this time around while Maui freshman Heitiare Wallace competes to fill the libero spot. Araujo and Amy Sumida of Kailua will be called on to anchor the defense, digging up shots that will more often than not be uncontested because of a lack of height on the front line.
Janeen Waialae handled the setter position last year, but may move to outside hitter this season due to Adams' recruiting efforts. When she wasn't bringing in middle blockers, the coach was convincing Michelle Norman to transfer in from UTEP and sophomore Nohealani Burgess to come home from conference rival Western New Mexico. Both were starters at their previous institutions and instantly turn one of last year's few weaknesses into a strength.
Hawaii-Hilo (8-18, 3-7)
Whatever happens on the Big Island in Julie Morgan's first go-round, it figures to happen when setter Megan Denman goes outside to PacWest first-teamer Sara Pilgreen.
Pilgreen, one of five seniors on the roster, buried 336 kills last year and was the obvious focal point of the offense. What happens when Navalta and Ahuna put their monsters on her and force the Vulcans to find someone else to beat them will tell the tale of the season.
Tiffanie Ollison and Emily Hutchinson filled that role in Hilo's biggest wins last year, but failed to do it every night. Morgan will be looking for consistency from them, and if she gets it, she may be looking at an undersized front line that can compete with the others in the conference.
Junior middle blocker Christina Cooley could also develop into the role while freshmen outside hitter Shannon Hiller adjusts to the college game.
Denman has always been just on the outside of the conversation about the PacWest's best setters, but figures to have her best year yet because of the weapons surrounding her.
Sophomores Amy Kato, Tiana Lum-Tucker and Kahealani Silva will compete for the libero spot and find time in the backcourt as defensive specialists as well.