By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kahea Rodrigues’ tryout with the University of Hawaii at Hilo volleyball team was, as she recalls, just another day in the gym.
She made the Vulcans by doing what she’s always been doing. Setting, by now, has become sheer muscle memory.
“I started playing coming out of the womb,” she said. “It runs in the blood.”
The big difference, the fact that she’d been doing it longer than everyone else, wasn’t readily apparent at first.
“Nobody knew how old I was,” the 5-foot-5 Rodrigues said. “They thought I was the same age as them. Somebody asked me how old I was and I gave in and told them.
“They were like, ‘What? No way. You’re that old?’ I got the nickname ‘Grandma.’”
That’s quite a stretch, but for the 29-year-old Rodrigues, 30 is the new 21.
Though even if she was 21, that still would make her one of the older contributors on the freshman-laded Vulcans. But age, Rodrigues says, is but an insignificant number.
“If you can still play the game and you can still move, you’re just as good as anybody else on that court,” she said.
It’s just that her journey from high school to college junior took longer than most.
After playing three years for Roosevelt High on her native Oahu, Rodrigues’ first stop after graduating in 2002 was Hawaii Community College. Her time in Hilo “wasn’t going to well,” so she moved to Vancouver, Wash., and she got a travel specialists certificate from International Air Academy.
She did the big-city thing, living in both New York and Los Angeles, but she eventually moved back to Hilo to be with her mom and great-grandmother.
Rodrigues had stayed in touch with the game by playing with club team No Pressure — she’s the youngest member — and she loves to coach all ages. She’s coached junior Vulcans libero Kahealani Vento-Rowe when Vento-Rowe was at Hilo High, and Rodrigues has played against Vento-Rowe and freshman UHH outside hitter Marley Strand-Niclolaisen in club play.
Rodrigues was a volunteer assistant with the Pahoa High boys program last season, and one of her favorite groups to work with are 12 and under boys.
“I love my babies,” she said. “They teach me patience.
“I don’t have kids. I borrow and return.”
So when she couldn’t find a job after another stint at HCC, she transferred to UHH and asked coach Tino Reyes about trying out.
Reyes, who was making over his roster with a slew of fresh faces, had no qualms about adding someone who didn’t exactly fit the mold of typical first-year player.
“Not at all,” he said. “She’s still a volleyball player. I knew she had some skills and had played a lot of volleyball. Experience counts for something.”
In fact, it counts for a lot, especially on the road.
Rodrigues played in all five home matches as the Vulcans started off their season undefeated, but she saw her role increase during UHH’s road losses last week against Hawaii Pacific and BYU-Hawaii. In a five-game setback to the Sea Warriors on Sept. 20, she notched a season-high 16 assists as she joined freshman starter Sienna Davis in UHH’s two-setter system.
“She never gets frazzled out there.” Reyes said of Rodrigues. “She’s been through the wars. The young kids tend to get rattled with a hostile crowd.
“I hope she’s loving this moment. I think she wanted it when she was younger, and now she has a chance to live it.”
Age may be just a number, but Rodrigues said her best asset is the wisdom that comes with it.
“I try to bring my knowledge and experience to the court but to try to help my teammates out at the same time,” she said. “Whenever we’re in a rut, I try to keep them calm and bring them back to reality.”
All the while, Rodrigues feels she’s doing a good job of keeping up with the younger legs.
“I didn’t think I would be able to, considering I’m almost (8-10) years older then most of them,” she said. “But I think it’s been the opposite. I think I might have too much energy for them during practice. I expect them to hustle if I’m hustling. If I commit to them that I’m going to hustle, I would hope they commit to me to hustle.”
The Vulcans (5-2, 0-2 Pacific West Conference) return home at 7 p.m. today to play Chaminade (3-4, 0-2) looking to end a two-match losing streak.
UHH is led by Strand-Nicolaisen (3.27 kills per set), freshman middle blocker Kyndra Trevino-Scott (2.88, .399 hitting percentage), junior hitter Callie Aberle (2.56) and Davis (7.15 assists per set). The Silverswords are ninth in the league in attack percentage at .181, just ahead of UHH (.166). Sophomore Kim Spring leads Chaminade with 2.90 kills per set but is hitting just .105.
The rematch with HPU (8-2, 2-0) is 7 p.m. Saturday at UHH Gym. Reyes said his team lost the serving-and-passing battle in the loss to the Sea Warriors (8-2, 2-0) in a match that easily could been have a sweep. But he liked the look of his team as it won the third and fourth games to force a decisive set.
“One of the characteristics of this team is they won’t quit,” Reyes said. “They may hamper themselves, but they won’t quit and that’s a good thing.”