By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Last year was one that Tino Reyes would like to forget.
Just ask him.
“Last year? How come you keep referring to last year?” Reyes asked. “I want to move on.”
Coming off a trying 4-17 season, Reyes will look to turn the page surrounded by a slew of first-year players brought in to freshen up the program. The 2012 Vulcans were young in their own right. But the new-look squad that takes the floor at 7 p.m. today at UHH Gym in the volleyball season-opener against Alaska-Fairbanks will be just as young and includes only one senior.
An overhaul was the plan all along. Midway through last season, Reyes already was conjuring up a way to recruit an entire new starting lineup.
Did he succeed?
“Not sure if I did,” he said. “We’re better talent-wise. I’m not sure if the top tier is where I thought it would be.
“I think we’re a little more deeper. And there are several girls who can get into that upper end.”
Count Marley Strand-Nicolaisen on that list.
Last year was one that she won’t likely forget anytime soon. As a senior at Ka‘u, she guided the Trojans to the school’s first Big Island Interscholastic Federation championship. The 6-foot Strand-Nicolaisen moved from Pahala to Hilo as one of the jewels of Reyes’ recruiting class with a scholarship in tow.
“She’s got real nice athleticism,” Reyes said. “She’s still got to learn how to play the game. Her experience level is low.
“Her learning curve will tell whether she’s real good this year or next year.”
Either way, Strand-Nicolaisen will be in the mix at outside hitter, which requires her to switch from her position in high school, middle blocker.
“Just need a quicker approach with faster sets,” she said. “Fast, fast, fast.”
She’s one of the players who Reyes is confident can also hit when in the back row. And after carrying the Trojans as a two-time Big Island Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year, Strand-Nicolaisen’s getting get used to being just one of the girls.
“It’s different now because there is a large team aspect,” she said. “At Ka‘u, there were only so many options.
“But here you can basically run anything and expect everyone to be at the same level.”
Bria Morgan left the program after a freshman season in which she led the Pacific West Conference in kills per set. That number was both a blessing and a curse, though, as bad passes got the Vulcans out of system and they often failed to come up with second and third hitting options.
Reyes thinks that the addition of junior Callie Aberle, a 5-10 junior college transfer from Feather River (Calif.) College, will make the Vuls more balanced this season.
“A really nice athlete, but tiny,” Reyes said. “I don’t know if she can handle 60 balls a match.”
While he was still trying to hammer out the pecking order at outside hitter, matters are set at libero and setter with Kahealani Vento-Rowe and Sienna Davis, respectively.
“They’re little bit ahead of everybody else,” Reyes said.
Last year, Vento-Rowe got an up-close look at the season of Reyes’ discontent as one of UHH’s statisticians. It also made her privy to all the colorful and not-so-subtle ways that Reyes tried to get through to his team.
Vento-Rowe, a 2010 Hilo graduate, has noticed a slight change in Reyes’ outlook this year.
“I think it’s just that he realizes that we’re such a new team this year,” she said. “He has more explaining to do and he can’t really yell at us.”
Volleyball runs in the Rowe family blood, so it’s no surprise that Reyes has taken notice of his libero’s IQ for the game.
“She started playing in the womb,” he said.
She’s the granddaughter of Big Island volleyball icon Raymond Rowe, and her uncle, Kenneth Rowe, heads Keaukaha Volleyball Club.
“We learn to play volleyball before anything else,” she said. “We’re just around it so much that you pick it up.”
After leaving Hilo, she attended Hawaii Community College and continued to play for Keaukaha. Reyes spotted her during a club match against Pilipaa.
“I guess it was good that I never stopped touching the ball,” she said. “The two years helped me with the basics. Now I just have to get used to how coach wants me to play.”
Just a freshman, Davis is a seasoned player from Kamehameha-Maui, however, she’s easing into the setter role after playing primarily hitter and middle blocker in high school.
Among the returning Vulcans who will see playing time are 5-11 junior Abbey Wade, sophomore Shelby Harguess and defensive specialist Kelia Parrilla, the lone senior.
Wade could play middle or hitter, while UHH will take advantage of the 6-1 Harguess at blocker.
A recipient of at least a few vocal criticisms from her coach last season, Reyes appreciates Wade’s demeanor.
“Abby gives us some intangibles. She just never would quit,” he said. “She always sees the bright side of situations. Kelia is just a dynamic defensive player.”
But the focus of the season will be on how fast the first-year players catch up to speed.
“If we can find our learning curve by the time we start conference, we should be a nice team,” Reyes said. “I think we’ll be a better passing team this year.”
Freshman Kyndra Trevino-Scott, 5-11, has earned a spot at middle blocker, and Reyes is excited about how 32-year-old Kahea Rodrigues, 5-4, can help out on the back row and with serving. Rodrigues is a Hilo native who graduated from Roosevelt High on Oahu in 2002 and has decided to return to school.
There are another pair of freshmen outside hitting options.
Allie Johnson, 5-11, from Ohio will see more playing time when she learns the system, Reyes said, while, 6-1 Elina Olsson has shown promise but has nursed an injury in preseason camp.
“I think what coach Tino is trying to do is build the freshmen up so by the time we’re seniors we have a lot of experience and can go pretty far,” Strand-Nicolaisen said.
That journey starts tonight.