By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
At first, the thought of sliding over to middle blocker to fill her best friend’s shoes was a daunting one for Toni Beck.
“It’s hard, I miss her a lot,” Beck said. “But we’re doing pretty good.”
That’s the consensus building around the Ka‘u volleyball team: life after Marley is going to be just fine.
And the Trojans don’t have time to get nostalgic, anyway. They’ve got a title defense to get to.
“We’re going to show everybody,” junior setter Kerrilynn Domondon said. “Some people think Marley did everything. We’re going to show this year that we can win.”
Always the underdog, the landscape at Ka‘u was forever changed when Marley Strand-Nicolaisen helped deliver the school its first Big Island Interscholastic Federation title in 2012.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure because we won last year that we have to do it again,” Beck said. “But I guess that pressure is motivation.
“I just need to get it done.”
And while Strand-Nicolaisen, a two-time BIIF player of the year, is gearing up for her first season with the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Trojans coach Josh Ortega likes a returning corp that also includes Kamalani Fujikawa, Sky Kanakaole-Esperon and Jernest Breithaupt-Louis.
The Trojans will surely miss the security blanket that Strand-Nicolaisen provided with her hammer spikes, but Ortega thinks this year’s team could but equal to if not better defensively. Especially with the way Breithaupt-Louis, a senior, is performing at libero.
Because of Ortega’s emphasis on defense, Beck will move from outside hitter — she was second-team all-BIIF last season — to middle blocker.
“That’s where we need her,” Ortega said. “There are lots of girls that can play the middle. She’s good, she’s strong, she loves hitting and she’s perfect for the middle.”
The senior has sprouted to 6 feet and the club player recently honed her skills playing with Moku O Keawe in a USA Volleyball High Performance tournament in July in Ft. Lauderdale.
“Toni’s improved a lot,” Domondon said. “She’s getting better, everyone is getting better.”
The 5-0 setter made first-team all-BIIF last season and is about the same height and fills a similar role as her sister Jadelynne did in 2010, when the Trojans made the first of three successive trips to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament.
Back then, states was the ultimate prize. But the expectations have been raised in Pahala.
“Let’s take BIIFs again,” Beck said. “Let’s do it one more time.”
Said Domondon: “We can. We got it, we just have to work hard and play hard.”
Fujikawa is a senior who made second-team all-BIIF at outside hitter last season, while Kanakaole-Esperon, a junior, was honorable mention at outside hitter for Ka‘u. Both should help pick up some of the slack with the departure of not only Strand-Nicolaisen, but also Kaila Olson, who graduated as well.
The preseason has been a mixed bag as Ka‘u prepares for its regular-season opener Aug. 27 at Laupahoehoe.
Ka‘u finished second at a tournament in Pahoa, but Ortega said he wasn’t sure which Trojans team was going to show up at last weekend’s Waiakea Girls Volleyball Invitational. Ka‘u was eliminated by Hawaii Prep, and it finished behind both the Ka Makani and Konawaena, the two teams that figure to be the Trojans’ biggest competition in Division II.
“Some days we have all the confidence in the world, and other days I don’t know what happened,” he said. “All we have to do is play together. Staying up and just believing in yourself.”