Hawaii women’s volleyball: Back-row players Hanawahine, Okino, Gong dig in

Libero Kyra Hanawahine went for a dig against Texas in a spring exhibition March 22. / Photo by Jamm Aquino, Star-Advertiser

The competition has been equal parts fierce and friendly.

A three-way battle to determine the successor to Tita Akiu as the next Hawaii women’s volleyball libero is underway at every Rainbow Wahine preseason practice.

The candidates: fourth-year junior Rika Okino, junior Kyra Hanawahine and third-year sophomore Janelle Gong.

The team temporarily got away from the daily grind over the weekend with a West-side camping trip, wrote Cindy Luis in Monday’s print edition of the Star-Advertiser.

But they were right back at it on Monday.

“It’s been a competition ever since I got here, I feel like,” Hanawahine said. “Our chemistry on and off the court is really clicking. We really enjoy being with each other off the court, so that obviously helps to translate onto the court. And I feel like we’re all really big competitors, so in the gym everyone’s really going after it, so we can’t really ask for much more than that.

Said Okino: “Well, it’s been tough. We all want the same things out of ourselves and obviously each other. We just want to be the best players we can possibly be. And as a result of that, I think we each are making each other better, and as a whole making the team better.”

And Gong: “Oh, yeah. It’s been really tight, I guess. … Right now, everyone’s getting a lot of passing reps, even the middles. So it’s not like super specific to liberos and stuff. You have to intermix.”

Here’s a little more on each player.

Hanawahine is a Kamehameha alumna who went off to play at Oregon two years and transferred home in the spring. She appeared briefly in then-No. 12 Oregon’s two victories over UH at the Stan Sheriff Center last September.

The 5-foot-2 Hanawahine saw spot action as a Duck — 12 digs spanning 14 matches — but she’s definitely in the mix here. One of the biggest adjustments she’s had to make involves her passing technique.

“Actually, a lot of the technique-wise, I used to play like how Coach Robyn (Ah Mow) them are stressing, like in high school. And when I went to Oregon I kind of switched, the passing technique. Now I’m trying to get back into the old groove. It can be frustrating, but I just have to stay patient and keep working every day.”

Just about everything else, she said, is coming together quickly for her learning her new teammates.

Rika Okino passed the ball against UC Davis last season. / Star-Advertiser file photo by Darryl Oumi

The 5-5 Okino is probably the most recognizable to UH volleyball fans, as she saw action in all 27 UH matches last year as a serving and defensive specialist. The former valedictorian at Kalani High is on track to graduate in civil engineering after this season and has already decided 2019 will be her last as a college volleyball player, though she has an additional year of eligibility remaining.

“Personally, (this season) I would like to get as much playing time as possible, of course,” Okino said. “If that doesn’t mean that I’m starting, then obviously I would like to help the team in any other way, whether it’s pushing my teammates in practice, and just making the players around me better, because overall I want the team to succeed. As far as our team … of course we want to win the Big West. Go to the tournament, and have a good run. We keep getting eliminated early on. You know, we just want to make it as long as possible.”

Okino had four double-digit-dig matches in 2018 and posted seven assists at UC Irvine.

As a fourth-year player, Okino has been around these Wahine as long as anyone, coaches included. That’s notable in a season in which first-year players (five true freshmen and four Division I transfers) comprise the majority of the roster.

“Well, the big thing we’re trying to solidify over this past spring and coming into the summer was our team culture,” Okino said. “We knew we had a lot of new faces coming in, so we wanted to kind of make sure that what we were doing, we were all on the same page as far as how things operate within our team. So that when the new girls come in, they have leaders to follow. And they’re following us doing the things we want them to do, exactly how to do them.”

Janelle Gong made a dig against Cal State Northridge last season. / Star-Advertiser file photo by Andrew Lee

Gong, of Moraga, Calif., is the tallest of the three at 5-9, and made spot appearances in 13 matches in her redshirt freshman season of 2018. She had a four-dig match against Cal State Northridge and ended a sweep against Coastal Carolina with an ace.

She was teammates with UH senior hitter Kirsten Sibley at Campolindo High in the Bay Area, easing her transition into college ball. The Worsley brothers, Joe and Gage, of the Rainbow Warrior volleyball team also played at Campolindo during her time there.

“It was super awesome” following that group to Manoa, she said.

She’s felt it remarkable how quickly this group so new to one another is progressing.

“I mean, I think we’re all ready to play,” Gong said. “Usually in the past, we had to take a lot of time getting used to each other. And we’ve had to build up to playing 6-on-6. But lately here, we’ve been able to jump right into it and we’ve been meshing a lot quicker together.”


  1. darkfire35 August 19, 2019 8:14 pm

    Absolutely great job Brian on getting the perspectives from all 3 Wahine vying for the Libero position! I sure don’t want to have to make the decision on which one to start since they all are working hard to get on the court. Again, a really great job on the article and the interviews! GO BOWS!

  2. iGrokSpock August 21, 2019 9:11 am

    The jury is still out on how these Wahine will gel, but with 9 newcomers it will be exciting!

  3. Joseph Desalvo August 21, 2019 5:31 pm

    Looking for a return to the final four this year. This team is potentially primed for a monster year. So many good young hitters as well as more experienced ones! They seem to be jelling well. I can see perhaps 2 freshmen making the starting roster! Go Bows!

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