By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Megan Waiki moved far away from home, roughly 3,790 miles, to play volleyball at East Central, a small Division II school in Ada, Okla., where she keeps growing every year.
Her listed height on the Tigers’ roster changes every season, a running joke for the 6-foot-1 senior middle blocker. Her parents, Quincey Waiki, who’s in construction, and Vanessa, a nurse, are 6-2 and 5-10, respectively.
“Out of high school, I came in at 5 feet 11 and every year I do my physical I seem to be taller,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve stopped growing.”
That applies to off the court as well for the 2009 Kamehameha graduate and athletic training major, who carries a 3.0 grade point average, and has found a comfort level at ECU, which has about 4,000 students. She’s set to graduate in May of 2013.
After three years of sporadic playing time, including battling a rotator cuff injury last season, Waiki has jumped into the starting lineup. (The team’s matches are streamed live on the school’s website, ecutigers.com.)
“I worked out more, started running and lifting more to be in shape,” she said. “I’m quicker and worked to be more consistent. I talked to our coach (Dave Thorn) and asked what kind of things I needed to work on. I really wanted to get out there and play.”
She paid her dues as a freshman, played in just 12 matches and pounded 23 kills for the season. As a sophomore, Waiki got into 14 matches and had 64 kills. Last season, she saw action in 20 matches and had 59 kills.
In a sweep over Southern Nazarene on Tuesday at home, Waiki put down four kills and contributed three blocks to help the Tigers (7-18 overall, 4-4 Great American Conference) snap a two-match losing streak.
Waiki has knocked down 143 kills, fourth on the team, and started 17 of 25 matches. Despite the lingering pain in her shoulder, she’s raised her hands high and recorded 47 stuffs, the third most blocks.
“It’s an overuse injury,” she said. “It gets more painful at night. I try to block everything out. Adrenaline helps me get over the pain.”
She had a fine match last Tuesday, slamming eight kills on 17 swings with just three errors for a .294 hitting percentage and throwing in three blocks in ECU’s five-set victory over Oklahoma Baptist to break a seven-match skid.
There were 142 fans at the Kerr Civic Center, including her mom and younger sister Anuhea, 12, who both visited for two weeks. Her brother is Brad Waiki, a 2011 Hilo graduate who played baseball at Mesa (Ariz.) junior college last season and is now at a community college on Oahu. She also has two other younger sisters, Quinn and Madison.
“It’s the first time someone from my family visited to watch me play,” Waiki said. “I cried at first because I missed them so much. It was really exciting. They went out and traveled places by themselves. They went to Dallas, the zoo, the Tulsa state fair. They made their own vacation out of it. I had school and couldn’t go with them. That was a bummer.”
When Waiki first flew out to ECU, she knew no one, had no family members nearby and didn’t have much of a clue about the town of Ada, which has a population of 17,000 and weather that runs up and down the thermostat, not to mention the occasional tornado.
“My first year the toughest part was the first couple of months,” she said. “I wanted to come home. But my parents pushed me to stay here. It was a good thing. I’ve got a good education and I’ve learned about cultural things I wouldn’t have learned if I were still on an island. I found myself and became a stronger individual.”
In her sophomore season, Waiki formed a bond with new teammates Danielle Essix, now a junior outside hitter, and her sister Yakira Essix, a graduate assistant, and Tatiana Booth, a senior middle.
Once a wallflower stuck in a corner, she has spread her wings and spends the holiday breaks with her teammates. Waiki only flies home during the summer, a transformation that defines her.
“We’ve all become stuck together,” she said. “We’re a great support system and help each other. I know we’ll be lifelong friends. I go to the sisters’ hometown for Thanksgiving and Christmas and we visit Tatiana. They’re all from small towns in Texas.
“I’ve become more knowledgeable, learned to become more of an adult and take care of myself. I’ve had a job for two years. I work as a waitress at Chili’s. I don’t need my parents giving me money all the time to take care of me. Going to school on the mainland has made me feel independent.”
On the inside of her wrist is the kanji character for determination. It’s a visible sign of inspiration for Waiki, who has assimilated well at ECU, according to her sister Anuhea.
“Wherever you are you talk like that. Here I talk like a mainlander,” Waiki said. “My sister said, ‘Why do you sound like that?’ When I come back home, I get the pidgin back.
“I didn’t know about the culture until I got here. Oklahoma is mainly Indian land and you learn about their culture. You also learn about different kinds of people. It’s just really diverse.
“It’s been a great experience. Being stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean for 18 years, when you move away you see so many different things. I’ve been to so many different states, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri. But there’s nothing that compares to Hawaii.”
When she needs a little adrenaline boost on the floor or a reminder how far she’s come, a quick glance at her tattoo works better than a charm, more like a lifetime guarantee.
“I have the kanji character for determination tattooed on me. It’s written in Japanese and I have determination tattooed on me,” Waiki said. “When I look down at my wrist, I feel I’m here for a reason. That’s to prove to everybody back home that anybody can do what you set your mind to anywhere.”
To submit a collegiate athlete with Big Island ties for publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
School: East Central (Okla.)
Position: Middle blocker
Major: Athletic training
BIIF: Kamehameha, 2009
Motto: ‘Determination is tattooed on me.’