Hard work pays off for Cowell

King Kekaulike graduate off to strong start in fourth season with Rainbow Warriors

Colton Cowell has 25 kills, eight digs and seven blocks while playing in all nine sets this season for the undefeated University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team. The second-ranked Rainbow Warriors next play Feb. 1 and 3 against No. 8 Stanford at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu. UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII ATHLETICS photo

It has taken longer than perhaps anyone thought it would, but Colton Cowell has reached prime time for the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team.

Cowell, a fourth-year junior outside hitter out of King Kekaulike High School, had just one career college start before beginning this season as a regular starter.

At 6-foot-1, he looms as one of the most unlikely standout outside hitters in the world of giants who own center stage in big-time men’s college volleyball.

“Of course, I would like to believe that initially I had potential to compete at the highest level in men’s volleyball in the NCAA as a part of the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team,” Cowell said last week. “However, I feel what has come to pass this year has definitely been a byproduct of hours of hard work, extra repetitions and mental and physical preparation.”

The second-ranked Rainbow Warriors are off to a 3-0 start, and Cowell is red-hot out of the gate. He is one of three starters to play in all nine sets, his 25 kills are third on the team, he is hitting .457, his eight digs and seven blocks are each tied for fourth on the team and he is receiving serve at a remarkable .897 clip on 39 attempts, both second on the team behind libero Gage Worsley.

He entered the season with 22 career kills and 12 career digs, having redshirted the 2017 season after a freshman year in which he appeared in just nine matches.

Now, he touches the highest level on the team at 11-foot-6 and has added more than 30 pounds of muscle since leaving King Kekaulike as a two-time Maui Interscholastic League Player of the Year. He arrived in Manoa at 148 pounds and is now north of 180.

“I faced a lot of internal frustration of limited playing time,” Cowell said of his first three years at UH. “However, I had to come to terms with the reality that if I wanted to get onto the court I had to work a lot harder. I had to put more effort in, whether it was in the weight room or on the court, simply. I definitely faced a lot of discouraging moments throughout the first three years here. I definitely found, at the same time, a motivation from those moments that allowed me to sort of go the extra mile in terms of what I was willing to do to find success.”

He didn’t let any athletic setbacks stop him in the classroom — he finished requirements for his economic major a semester early and is now working on minors in business and peace and conflict resolution.

He hopes to pursue a career in renewable energy after a likely professional and/or national team career. He was a standout at USA team workouts in December and is a strong candidate for the under-23 national team as soon as this summer.

He hit .800 (12 kills in 15 swings) to go along with three digs and two blocks in the first match of the season, a sweep of New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“On the first night it was a pretty surreal feeling,” he said. “I feel that, of course, I have to give the credit to my teammates, especially (setter) Joe (Worsley) for putting me in position to find success. My offense has been honed by a lot of reps.”

Worsley, a senior, said a lot of opponents see the 6-1 Cowell in warmups and figure he is a libero or defensive specialist, not the all-around force he has become.

“I get a lot of questions about that,” Worsley said of how big a weapon Cowell is now. “I think the main thing when he’s on the floor is his ability to receive serve and still be the type of attacker he is. He receives at the highest level possible. There’s not many outside hitters in the country that can receive serve as well as he does.

“He does a very nice job of taking care of that, but then on top of that, he’s one of the most athletic kids in college volleyball right now.”

Coach Charlie Wade knew this type of breakthrough was possible when he first laid eyes on Cowell at King Kekaulike.

“From the beginning, he was very confident,” Wade said, “In one of our first meetings, he said the level he wanted to play at and, obviously, I’m all for it. He was including himself in conversations with people that were up for player of the year. So, from that standpoint, I knew that he was really confident and really driven, but a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds are and not that many put the time and effort into it that he has.

“He lives and breathes UH volleyball, and his academic performance is equally impressive. He’s got a lot on his plate and he’s done a great job of succeeding at everything.”

Cowell is Exhibit A of what it takes to excel in Wade’s program.

“Colton is a great story, not just for athletes and student-athletes, but just people and life in general,” Wade said. “We talk all the time: ‘You want to play more, play better. You want to play better, work harder.’ It’s that simple and Colton has lived that.”

The Rainbow Warriors don’t get back on the court until Feb. 1 and 3 against No. 8 Stanford.

“Playing collegiate volleyball at the highest level has always been a dream of mine,” Cowell said. “And I knew there were multiple ways to find my path, a line, to achieve that goal. However, the opportunities that have been presented to me by Charlie Wade and our coaching staff, through the hard work and dedication of our team as an entire unit, this has been a truly surreal experience competing here at the Stan Sheriff Center in front of the best fans in the world. We consider them our ohana.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.