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Leauanae loving life as Alaska Anchorage’s libero

Kamehameha Maui grad embraces change of position, environment

Talia Leauanae is third on the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s volleyball team with 293 total digs over 78 sets. She and the Seawolves take on UC San Diego today in the NCAA Division II tournament. Alaska Anchorage Athletics / Skip Hickey photos

Talia Leauanae has become an expert at adapting on and off the volleyball court.

The 2017 Maui Interscholastic League Division I Player of the Year for Kamehameha Schools Maui was an outside hitter for her entire volleyball life until she arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, to play in college a little more than a year ago.

Today, Leauanae will see significant action at libero for the University of Alaska Anchorage when the Seawolves (22-6) open play in the NCAA Division II tournament against UC San Diego in the San Bernardino, Calif., regional.

“I’m super excited, just because last year we weren’t able to go to regionals, so this will be my first time going to regionals and being able to see the level that these teams play at,” Leauanae said via phone from her hotel room in California on Tuesday. “It’s super exciting for me. And, yeah, I’m enjoying my sophomore year so far now that it’s almost over.”

Last season as a freshman defensive specialist, she played in 59 sets over 17 matches for the Seawolves when they finished 21-7 and did not get an NCAA bid. She had 87 digs as a freshman.

Talia Leauanae celebrates during the Seawolves’ sweep of Central Washington on Oct. 3.

This season, she is third on the team with 293 total digs over 78 sets. Her average of 3.76 digs per set is best on the team by a large margin.

“It was definitely a huge change for me,” Leauanae said of the transition to defense. “I never thought I’d be playing libero, like, ever in my life, but I’m actually really enjoying it. … It’s very different from being a hitter.”

Like the transition on the court, the transition from growing up on a tropical island to living in the land of snow and cold has been a challenge that Leauanae has met head-on as well.

“Especially last year it was a huge culture shock just because the weather, for one, is big,” she said. “It’s just very different. The community is very different than Hawaii, but it’s not a bad different. I really love Alaska and I love being able to say I’m from the only other outer state that’s not part of the lower 48.”

She does admit that “I do miss home a lot. I can’t wait to go back.”

First, there is business to take care of.

“I personally think our team is good enough to move forward,” said Leauanae, who is a graphic arts major. “We just need to be on our ‘A’ game and everyone do our jobs.”

One of her former KSM volleyball teammates Kimani Fernandez, who formerly went by a hyphenated last name Fernandez-Roy, is averaging 4.2 points and 4.2 rebounds as a key reserve seeing nearly 18 minutes per game for the Seawolves basketball team.

“Just because our schedules are so busy we don’t really get to talk too much,” Leauanae said. “But we see each other a lot when we pass each other in the weight room or at the gym. We say hi and see how we’re do­ing, stuff like that. She’s doing great, the basketball team is doing great, I’m super proud of her.”

Leauanae has emerged as a key contributor on the court, according to UAA assistant coach Stacie Meisner, who is a former libero for the team.

“Similar to Talia, I played outside in high school,” Meisner said. “One thing we’ve always liked about Talia is how much of an athlete she is. So when it came to finding someone that we wanted in the back row, playing defense and passing for us, that was a thing that really stood out to the coaches and made her as a libero really appealing to us.”

Leauanae has a message for any MIL player who is thinking about college volleyball.

“A lot of people are scared to get out of Hawaii, so what I would tell them is ‘Don’t be scared, just go for it,’ “ Leauanae said. ” ‘Just step out of your comfort zone and for volleyball, don’t stay to one position. Try out other positions because lots of girls from Hawaii can play all-around.’ … I have grown to love it.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.