Helm finds a little bit of Hawaii in Portland
Coaches happy to have sophomore setter from Molokai in Pilots program
From Hoolehua to Walla Walla, Wash., Noelani Helm grew up playing volleyball.
Born and raised on Molokai before moving to southeastern Washington in middle school when her father — former Molokai High School coach Matt Helm — became the women’s head coach at Whitman College, Noelani remembers being in gyms nearly all of her life.
Now, she is living a lifelong dream of playing at the NCAA Division I level, for the University of Portland.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” the Pilots’ sophomore setter said via phone on Thursday. “I basically got to grow up in a volleyball gym being around my dad and going to practices when I was little, playing with the ball on the wall while he’s running practice.
“Then as I got older, high school, being able to use those (Whitman) facilities to get extra reps, you really start to dial down on those skillsets and get a little more mindful about what I was doing, like, skill-wise and I would prep for college.”
Matt Helm coached one of the best teams in Maui Interscholastic League history when the Farmers won the 2010 Division II state crown — still the only state crown in the sport for the MIL. Matt Helm took over the Whitman program prior to the 2012 season.
“It’s been really cool having my dad as a coach,” Noelani Helm said. “He’s got a lot of connections, he knows a lot of people, so that helped out a lot, with the whole recruiting process.
“It’s been really great having someone to talk volleyball with all of the time.”
Helm has played in all 38 sets this season for the Pilots, who are 1-9.
She played as a freshman on the same indoor team as Seabury Hall alum Shayla Hoeft, who is now a graduate assistant for the Portland indoor team and a redshirt senior on the school’s beach volleyball team.
Dylan Hamilton, also a Seabury Hall graduate, is an assistant coach for the UP indoor team and head coach of the beach program.
“It’s been really great, that was definitely a part of my decision on coming to UP, having that Hawaiian community surrounding me,” Helm said. “It’s pretty funny, I’m pretty sure my dad used to ref coach Dylan’s high school volleyball games. Small world.”
Hamilton is happy to have Helm on each team — she played on the beach team in the single match they had in 2020 before being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s awesome,” Hamilton said. “First of all, she’s a really good kid and she comes from an awesome family and it shows. She’s thinking of her team first all the time, and she is a really hard worker. You know, what can she do next to get better in the gym, film, conditioning stuff when we’re off — and that’s great to see.”
First-year Portland indoor head coach Megan Burton is an Iolani School graduate who grew up on Oahu.
“Just being surrounded by the Hawaiian culture, I think, is really important and it was big for me,” Helm said. “Just going to Washington, it wasn’t really there. I mean, I had my immediate family, but we didn’t really have any other family besides us, so just being around that aloha spirit type deal, and just like family, that was really huge.
“Shayla has been such a big role model. She stayed for a grad assistant year, so I get a little more time to learn from her and just be around her and it’s been really great. Coach Dylan, he’s amazing, he’s my setting coach, so it’s really nice to have him around.”
Burton first saw Helm play at a volleyball combine on Oahu, which her father sent her to in high school four years ago. At the time, Burton — then an assistant coach at Nevada — and her colleagues did not know who the lanky, 5-foot-10 setter was.
“All of us, especially us coaches that come from Hawaii, we kind of have a pretty good idea of who the volleyball players are on the island. So, we always have an idea of who we’re looking for when we go to those combines,” Burton said. “We had no idea who this young lady was and she was great. We were, like, ‘Who is this?’ . … None of us knew who she was and we didn’t know it was Matt’s daughter, so it was a great surprise and so it was lucky and fortunate that we ended up at the same place. I never thought that we would get the opportunity to coach her.
“And it’s been amazing. She’s a great person, no shock there, coming from a great family. Her volleyball skills, they match that. You can tell that she grew up in a gym. She just sees the game at a different level and she has the skills to back it up.”
In the Pilots’ lone win so far this season — a five-set victory over San Francisco on Feb. 18 — Helm posted a double-double with 22 assists and 19 digs.
The decision to attend UP has been a solid one for Helm, who is second on the Pilots with 158 assists, just 12 behind senior Kellie Hughes in the team’s 6-2 offense.
“It’s only a four-hour drive away from Walla Walla, so close to home, so if I need to go home I could,” Helm said. “But for COVID reasons right now, can’t really see many people outside our bubble, but it’s really great so far. We have a really neat family culture and I think coach Meg is really good about knowing that we’re not just athletes, we’re also people outside of the sport. They care a lot about us, just in general how we’re doing as a person, not only on the volleyball side of things.”
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com.