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Cowell embraces ‘Mamba mentality’

King Kekaulike grad says there’s no holding back as he prepares to begin final season at UH

University of Hawaii outside hitter Colton Cowell hits the ball against Harvard’s Griffin Schmit as Rainbow Warriors libero Gage Worsley looks on during UH’s win in the Raising Cane’s Rainbow Warrior Classic on Jan. 10, 2020. UH starts its 2021 slate Sunday at UC Irvine. UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI‘I ATHLETICS photo

Sunday will bring a new number, a tightly trimmed body, and, although it’s a final go-round, a new beginning for Colton Cowell.

The King Kekaulike High School graduate is one of three front-line players returning for a second try at their senior seasons with the No. 2-ranked University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team.

The 14-match regular-season slate begins on Sunday when the Rainbow Warriors begin a road trip at UC Irvine that sees them kick off the season with four non-league matches in five days.

“Initially the team kind of had a timeline of beginning matches in the middle of March, so when the February competition dates were announced it certainly elevated the level of energy and performance in our practice gym,” Cowell said Wednesday. “I think guys are really excited to play, just that opportunity of stepping onto the court against some new blood and going at it, giving it our all.

“Given the circumstances of COVID preventing so much, even canceling our previous season, I’m really excited for what is to come in regards to this year.”

UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI‘I ATHLETICS photo

He will relish every moment he has left in a UH uniform.

“I will very literally be treating every one of these matches as if it is my last match in a University of Hawaii uniform,” he said. “Every time I get the opportunity to step on the court I will be holding nothing back and just giving my absolute maximum, really just enjoying every moment of it, and soaking it in, and embracing the moments that are on the court spent with my best friends.”

Cowell has switched his jersey number from 17 to 24 to honor late NBA great Kobe Bryant.

“I feel that for me Kobe was an athlete that I recognized from an early age as being someone who was capable of setting himself apart from a very elite population,” Cowell said. “Whenever he came up as a topic of discussion it was always about his competitive nature and his unrelenting work ethic. And with his passing in 2020 among a lot of other unfortunately negative events, I decided to make the switch to 24 because I wanted to channel my own version of the Mamba mentality.”

He was given 17 as a walk-on freshman in 2016, a number which, he said, “I really never really liked. Because of my position as a walk-on, I didn’t have the luxury of selecting a number.”

He has trimmed down from the 196 pounds he carried last year — when he missed four matches due to injuries — to the 183 he played at as a junior in 2019.

He was an AVCA All-America second-team selection last season, first-team all-Big West Conference, and an Off the Block Karch Kiraly Award finalist as the nation’s best outside hitter — and now he feels even better. He said his injuries last season included a “minor tear and major inflammation in my right shoulder, in the rotator cuff area.”

The number change is part of the new beginning.

“I did face certain frustrations last year with being injured more than I would have liked to,” he said. “I think that this new number for me symbolizes kind of a resurgence for my game and my role for this team and my identity as an athlete. I really look forward to showing everyone the work that myself and the team put in over the course of the offseason — I think we’ve reinvented ourselves.”

He also had chronic inflammation above and below his knee, but the weight loss has helped there immensely.

“I feel great, I have never felt better in my entire playing career,” he said. “At this point I am much stronger in terms of my relative body weight.”

He went out of his way to credit UH athletic trainer Renae Shigemura — “She was there every single step of the way,” he said.

He also pointed out Fysio Therapie HI with providing knowledge and care to help him recover, “physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Finally, Cowell pointed out that Josh Elms, the strength trainer for the UH men’s volleyball team, was also instrumental in his body makeover.

“He was really the reason that I was able to make such physical progress, in terms of my strength, speed and explosiveness,” Cowell said. “That man really worked with me day in and day out during the summer.”

Cowell admits that the journey from cancelation of the season last March to now has been long and arduous.

“Definitely an extensive process to say the least, both individually and as a team,” Cowell said. “We have had kind of just a timeline of every day we’re coming in trying to keep the level of intensity high, we’re trying to keep our focus and at the pinnacle.”

The hundreds of hours of workouts have reflected that goal.

“We’re just really grateful to be playing and it did feel long throughout that process,” Cowell said. “We really did a good job of keeping a high standard when it came to our training because we knew that at any given moment we could get the green light to compete and when that moment does come we wanted to make sure that we’re ready. We’re preparing each and every day and we’re not faltering whatsoever when we get that first opportunity.

“We want to look seasoned, we want to look experienced, we want to look professional.”

An NCAA title is the clear and unquestioned goal of this team. The Rainbow Warriors fell in the NCAA championship match in 2019 and were 15-1 when last season was halted by the pandemic.

They have been back in the gym with limited contact since November.

“I think that the team this year has really evolved and really improved from last year,” Cowell said. “I think we’ve increased depth at multiple positions and I think guys that got a lot of significant playing time under their belt have only really gotten better and I think with this extended preseason time we’ve really been able to work out kinks in the offense, develop certain plays and really just expand what we can do.

“I think there’s a level of unspoken connection in terms of the little details on the court that we don’t need to necessarily communicate…. I’m really liking what I’m seeing this year.”

The thought that the season could be wiped out at any moment has also fueled the drive for these Rainbow Warriors.

“We had all come to the terms with the idea that there could potentially not be a season this year,” Cowell said. “I think that from the sixth-year seniors to the third-year freshmen to the true freshmen, I think collectively even with the understanding that there may not be a season, no matter what, when we entered the gym we left all that stuff at the door and we focused on just getting better as a team.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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