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After tough offseason, Vaivai enjoys opportunity to start for Utah State

Utah State University setter Kalena Vaivai, shown during a game against Wyoming on Oct. 17, 2019, started for the Aggies last week in their season-opening losses to the Cowgirls. Utah State Athletics / RICK PARKER photo

It is a season that felt very far away for Kalena Vaivai, in so many ways, not long ago.

When it arrived last weekend, the King Kekaulike High School graduate was ready.

The sophomore setter for the Utah State University women’s volleyball recorded 46 assists on Friday night in a five-set loss to Wyoming and then 20 more assists on Saturday when the Aggies were swept by the Cowgirls. She also had 21 digs on the weekend.

Those starts came just two days after Vaivai emerged from 10 days in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

“It felt so great, just being able to finally show all the work we’ve put in,” Vaivai said Tuesday. “Yes, we didn’t get the results that we wanted, but it’s just like a different feeling from having to practice every day, working hard, finally showing what we’re about.

Kalena Vaivai recorded 66 assists and 21 digs in Utah State’s two losses to Wyoming last week. Utah State Athletics photo

“I think actually in those games we definitely learned a lot about ourselves and I feel like from this point on we’re only going to get better.”

Vaivai’s positive COVID-19 result came as a huge surprise.

“It was weird because I don’t do anything — I go from my apartment to my gym for practice and then I go back to my apartment. Occasionally I go to the grocery store, but that’s it,” Vaivai said. “The only symptom I had was congestion, which was nice.”

Also a surprise, considering her time away from the team — her name in the starting lineup.

“It was funny because when I got back I had one half day of practice and then the next day we had a scrimmage,” she said. “The day after that, which was Thursday before our game, we ran through a lineup that we decided was going to be our starting lineup.

“It was funny because I was on there, which felt so great. I was, like, ‘Wow, coming straight from isolation and I get this opportunity to play.’ I just knew it was a great opportunity and I was so excited.”

First-year USU coach Rob Neilson was hired away from the U.S. national men’s team, where he was the first assistant from 2017-19. He is a former assistant coach and setter for BYU, and former Hawaii men’s coach Mike Wilton is a volunteer assistant for the Aggies women.

“We love Kalena, she’s very coachable, she wants feedback and she wants to get better, so that’s always fun,” Neilson said. “She’s very talented, you know, her ability to set any ball on the court from anywhere on the court is obviously something that you look for as you’re trying to find great setters to train and help improve.”

Neilson has worked with Micah Christensen and Erik and Kawika Shoji — all from Hawaii — with the men’s national team, as well as a short stint working with Colton Cowell, a current UH standout who is also a King Kekaulike graduate.

Vaivai reminds Neilson of some of the other Hawaii players he has worked with.

“She’s got a ton of potential, if she just keeps working on her craft and becoming more confident in running offense and understanding how to put hitters in great situations,” Neilson said. “For us, it’s a tough decision there, we have got a couple other setters competing for that spot and ultimately you’re trying to find the people that can help our offense run the smoothest.

“And we felt like Kalena — you know, even having been out for 10 days — had a great mindset and the way that she approached and the way that she connected with our hitters, so that’s certainly why she got the nod.”

Former King Kekaulike teammate Lyric Love also tested positive for COVID-19 in January and had to isolate for two weeks before playing for Odessa (Texas) College. Vaivai reached out to former teammates while in isolation.

“I just randomly texted everybody and I’m like, ‘Hey guys, I miss you and hope you guys are all doing great for the season, funny thing happened: I just tested positive for COVID,’ “ Vaivai said. “Then I got all these replies saying, ‘Oh, I had it in October, I had it this summer.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You guys had it, too? I had no idea.’ … At one point or another we all had it, so we talked about it a lot.”

Vaivai knows that COVID-19 is no joke. Her uncle Malu Plunkett died of the virus at the age of 43 in December — he lived in Utah and passed away a week after testing positive.

“Honestly when it hit, for me it didn’t feel real until like a couple days later when I was processing all of my feelings,” Vaivai said. “After letting it get some light, I’m really heartbroken about it. Prior to his funeral, I was supposed to report back to school, but my team was so understanding, my coaches were great. They let me stay home for the funeral, just to get that extra family time that was needed for me.

“It really took a huge toll on me. People were asking me if I wanted to continue and, of course, I want to continue. This season is for sure going to be dedicated to him, and no matter the outcome I know and I remember the things that my uncle would tell me.”

Those short text messages that Plunkett would always send prior to matches are still something Vaivai looks back on and often finds herself waiting for the next one.

“He was so supportive,” Vaivai said. “He would always text me just how much he was so proud of me and he loves me, so I look back to that a lot to drive me to continue pushing through school, volleyball, just being the best player I can be, being the best student I can be. Yeah, it was a hard time and it’s still like a process that needs to be taken slowly, but I know he’s in a better place.”

After playing through a 2-28 season in 2019 as a freshman, Vaivai sees much brighter days ahead under Neilson and his staff. The long road to the season due to COVID-19 concerns also worked to the Aggies’ benefit.

“It’s a huge turnaround,” Vaivai said. “I think the big difference between this year and last year is the camaraderie of the team and just how close we got. There was nights where we would hang out together and we would just kind of open up.

“It wasn’t always volleyball, volleyball, volleyball. It was just getting to know a person and I think that’s had a huge impact on us because the trust we have in each other, the drive that we have when we go into a game — we were there to battle.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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