Junior middle Mauli'a LaBarre leads No. 3 Hawaii in blocks with 44, an average of 1.33 per game.

LaBarre is a wizard
in the middle for UH

Hawaii is No. 3 in the nation
but has much work left, starting
with playing USC tonight

Mauli'a LaBarre knows all about meeting challenges, vanquishing demons, moving on to the next level.

It took him about three days to get to level 14 in "World of Warcraft," a massive multiplayer online role-playing game where players battle against the world and each other. LaBarre chose to be a Paladin -- a white knight -- whose powers are derived from a special pool of attack devices.

Coincidentally, the game's inventors used a Hawaiian word to describe the pool: mana. A divine or spiritual power.

Online, the religious LaBarre is known as Ezekiel, named for one of the prophets in the Old Testament. On his way to reach the 60th and final level of WOW, Ezekiel must undertake quests and exploits in a land of fantastic adventure.

At times, the plains of the Arathi Highlands resemble the battles that take place on the volleyball court. LaBarre, a junior middle for No. 3 Hawaii, is always trying to reach that next level.

"This season is very much a series of steps," LaBarre said as the Warriors prepared for their matches with USC tonight and tomorrow. "We've slowly progressed week by week. We've improved tremendously as a team. If we continue to improve, there's no place to go but up.

"Yes, we have high expectations but if we keep playing our game, come out fired up, no one can beat us but us."

Hawaii is atop the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation at 8-1, but the Warriors have not played the four teams directly below them: top-ranked UCLA, second-ranked Pepperdine, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara. Not that leading the league at this point is giving the Warriors a false sense of accomplishment, but the Hawaii players would like to change their semi-fantasy world into reality.

LaBarre could be the white knight in this game.

"The biggest improvement I've seen is his attitude," UH junior hitter Matt Bender said. "He's not thinking so hard anymore. He's out there having fun. I think he knows he can become one of the top middles in the country.

"He's gotten so much stronger. He's improved his vertical and that contributes to how well he can hit, because he can jump very, very high."

How high? LaBarre has increased his standing jump by 3 inches, from 11 feet, 3 1/2 inches to 11-6 1/2. It was his offseason goal and "hopefully, I can keep it going," he said.

"We work a lot in the weight room and I'm still skinny, but I'm a lot stronger. Maybe people can't see it but I feel it. And I feel more confident because of it."

Fans might not see where LaBarre has added 30 pounds to his 6-8 frame. However, it shows up whenever he makes a perfect connection with setter Brian Beckwith and hammers the ball straight down.

That connection has resulted in LaBarre hitting .490 overall, .510 in MPSF matches. He is third on the team in kill average (2.79 per game). Against Cal State Northridge on Jan. 21, he had a perfect night with 12 kills and no errors on 15 swings.

"Brian is such a great setter and I want to become someone he can rely on all the time," LaBarre said. "Brian and I are clicking, he keeps raising the bar and I keep trying to meet it. I'm glad he has confidence in me.

"My job really isn't to get the kills. But if we can run the middle effectively, if I can hold (the opposing) blockers, it frees our great hitters on the outside so they can put the ball away. For me, kills are icing on the cake. What I love is to block the ball."

LaBarre leads Hawaii in blocks with 44, an average of 1.33 per game. In the national stats as of Feb. 10, he is ranked 11th.

"He is the best middle I've seen this year," Lauri Hakala, a first-year player for the Warriors, said. "And that is including BYU and Penn State. It was said that, before this year, Mau didn't reach his potential. I think he is understanding his potential and he is very effective.

"He's taking volleyball very seriously but in a fun way."

The biggest change in LaBarre may have come when he realized he was a volleyball player, and not a basketball player trying to play volleyball. He excelled at both sports at Roosevelt High but originally thought his future was in basketball, where he had some offers from junior colleges.

"I think I've finally gotten over being a basketball player," he said. "I still love to play in the park, but I've fallen so much in love with volleyball, our fans, my teammates ... I think I've finally given up basketball as a serious endeavor."

LaBarre had a serious questions about his life after playing sparingly (two games) in 2001. He had been thinking about going on a mission for the Mormon Church "and I knew I could use playing athletics as an excuse not to go," LaBarre said. "But Coach (Mike Wilton, a high-ranking member of the church) helped make the decision easier. I knew volleyball would be here when I got back.

"I think it made me a better player and person. Growing up in Hawaii, it got me out of my comfort zone. I had to speak a new language (Russian) and I learned to love and appreciate new things."

His two-year experience in Russia, he said, made him stronger mentally and spiritually. He lived up to the name his grandmother gave him of "Mauli'a" or "enduring strength, and the translation of his Paladin -- Ezekiel means "one whom God makes strong."

"I'm a pretty religious guy," LaBarre said. "I believe that life is filled with blessings. When you give of yourself, good things come back to you. And I've been very fortunate in that aspect.

"There's a lot of positive energy on our team. I think right now we're the underdogs and I like playing for underdogs. We're more of a sleeper team and we have some big road trips ahead. The goal is the (NCAA) championship and we have some big steps to take."

Leveling up in the world of Azeroth is as much an ongoing battle as Hawaii's quest to win the national title. LaBarre could well be the white knight for both.

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