[ RAINBOW VOLLEYBALL ]
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY|
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM &
DAVE SWANN / DSWANN@STARBULLETIN.COM
At 6-foot-8, converted basketball player Mauli'a LaBarre has helped shore up the middle this season for the fourth-ranked Hawaii Warriors.
Sophomore Mauli'a LaBarre's emergence
as a standout starting middle blocker has been
a welcome and somewhat unexpected gift for
Hawaii's fourth-ranked volleyball team
MAULI'A LaBarre looks at life through glasses colored by wonderment.
Little surprises may throw him off momentarily -- such as being sent to Samara, Russia, for his Mormon church mission. He was armed with a two-month crash course in the language and his faith.
A lot of faith. Samara Oblast (republic) is on the Volga River and is known as a gateway to Siberia.
"It was kind of scary," LaBarre said. "It's a really tough language, but I knew if I was going to live there, I had to learn it. I didn't know much about where I was being sent until after I spent two months at the MTC (Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah).
"But it's those elements of surprise that make things interesting."
The same can be said about LaBarre's emergence as a starting middle blocker for the No. 4 Hawaii Warriors' volleyball team. It's been somewhat of a surprise for the 22-year-old, who played briefly in two matches as a freshman in 2001 and touched a volleyball perhaps three times during his two-year mission.
"He's not a volleyball player, he's a basketball player we're trying to convert into a volleyball player," UH associate head coach Tino Reyes said. "But it's always been my opinion that the best volleyball players in our country have been ex-basketball players. Mau is athletic, jumps well and has great feet.
"We would have liked to redshirt him that first year, but we needed a third middle blocker. It was tough for him to break in, we had to established middle blockers (Dejan Miladinovic and Brenton Davis). But I expect him to become an all-league player at the minimum. He needs to get bigger and stronger and, if he does that, who knows how far he will go?"
LaBarre's growth process has been literal so far. He returned from his mission an inch taller -- he's now 6-foot-8 -- and about 40 pounds heavier. The latter has come after serious conditioning sessions in the UH weight room.
"In high school, the guys used to make fun of me so I didn't want to work out," said LaBarre, who weighed around 160 his senior year at Roosevelt High School. "At UH, that didn't happen. Everyone has encouraged me and I got extra attention from Coach Mel deLaura (assistant strength and conditioning coordinator).
"I've been getting stronger and I think it's helped my game. I'm not as tired and I have better leg strength. I've been able to motivate myself."
IT'S BEEN AN interesting transition from basketball to volleyball. But LaBarre found a soul mate in senior Josh Stanhiser, who came to UH to play basketball.
"Volleyball is a different mind-set from basketball, especially if you haven't been playing it all your life," Stanhiser said. "He's doing fine. He's really energetic, comes out and plays hard."
LaBarre currently leads the team in total blocks (18), with five solo blocks.
"It was tough when I first got back, but the coaches and players were sympathetic," LaBarre said. "After a few weeks, things fell into place. We have a lot of new players at new positions, so everyone is sort of new.
"Everyone's being so supportive of each other. Everyone knows you want to be playing well and you're working hard. They know you're going to make mistakes, but no one's yelling at each other. Everyone's very encouraging."
Said Warrior coach Mike Wilton: "He's going to be a real nice player for us. He's still a little too hyper, but I think that will change as he gets more experience. He's got quick feet and a quick brain."
LABARRE, A CUM LAUDE graduate of Roosevelt, could be considered a Renaissance man, surfing Kaisers as easily as channel surfing between the Cartoon Network and National Geographic Explorer.
Jazz and Led Zeppelin co-exist happily in his CD collection. He enjoys playing ukulele and the bass saxophone -- LaBarre was in the Roosevelt band -- and his taste in videos runs from "The Sound of Music" to the latest in PlayStation games.
"Video games ... it's my vice," he said. "It's not like I waste a lot of time, but I probably spend more time than I should on them, especially when I should be doing homework."
His class schedule is equally eclectic, as he majors in kinesiology and minors in Russian. This semester, LaBarre is taking anatomy, geography, physics and Russian.
"My sister is a nurse, so I've been around the medical field," LaBarre said. "It's funny because during practice I find myself thinking about what muscle I'm using or why a certain tendon is sore.
"And Russian ... you should never pass up an opportunity. I speak it pretty well now so maybe I could work in government as an interpreter. You never know."
Those who watched LaBarre in high school saw a tall, skinny, gawky kid whose athleticism earned him the OIA East Volleyball Player of the Year. However, his playing future seemed to be in basketball, until the UH volleyball coaches showed an interest.
"I wasn't thinking about playing volleyball in college and I had some junior college offers for basketball," LaBarre said. "In high school, it felt like a girls' sport ... although the girls playing at the college and international levels hit the ball pretty hard.
"But I have fallen in love with volleyball. Everything is so new and I have so much to learn. It's like I'm 10 years old again, like when I first started playing basketball. Volleyball is such a great team sport and I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to play in such a great program with such great fans. The other teams ask about our (home) crowds and I tell them, 'It's like this every week.' "
HE'S HANDLED the instant celebrity status with equal parts of surprise and humility. He's always stood out in the crowd because of his height, but now his friends kid him about being recognized at the mall.
"I have to sit back and chuckle about that," he said. "I'm no Justin Timberlake. I play a sport I enjoy and I'll never tell anyone no if they ask for an autograph.
"I will always try to make time to talk to them. I appreciate that they take the time to watch our sport and keep track of how our team is doing. They have their own lives and to see how dedicated they are, it makes you want to play harder."
There are short- and long-term volleyball goals for LaBarre. This could be a springboard season for him on the national scene and, "I think this year will dictate my volleyball future," he said.
"I'd jump at the chance to just play with the national team, they're the best of the best," LaBarre said. "And 2008 (Beijing Olympics) is in the back of my mind. If I push myself, if the opportunity is there ... wow, to represent your country ... that would be great."
And short-term? The final four this May at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"If everyone does their job, plays to their potential, I feel we'll be here," he said. "Winning it at home will make it taste that much better.
"I never thought I'd be playing after high school. Everything now is a bonus. To be part of this program and its history of great players ... I always ask myself, 'Is this real?' "
As they say in Samara, "Da."