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Connor looking foward to joining a new community at Cal Poly

Seabury senior to play for Mustangs’ highly ranked beach volleyball program

Seabury Hall’s Ella Connor hits against Molokai’s Saije Aiana (left) and Jordyn McCutcheon during an MIL match on Oct. 5, 2019. In the fall, Connor is headed to Cal Poly, where she will play for a Mustangs beach volleyball team that is currently ranked No. 5 in the nation. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

• Senior Spotlight is a special series highlighting standout MIL student-athletes as they reflect upon their high school careers and look toward the future. Stories will run periodically in The Maui News.

No matter if it was Ella Connor’s first time volleying the ball at Kalama Beach Park as a kid, participating in summer youth clubs or making key hits during Maui Interscholastic League matches, her favorite moments had the same theme: community.

The Seabury Hall senior is now looking forward to the team atmosphere and connections she’ll make at Cal Poly while pursuing a degree in kinesiology and playing for the school’s nationally ranked beach volleyball program.

“I’m excited for the people and to be on the team, and the coaching staff and the future that volleyball might hold,” Connor, the 2019 MIL Girls Volleyball Division II Player of the Year, said via phone Thursday. “I will always miss the potlucks that we had when outer island teams or Hana would come, or just traveling to different islands just to play them– those trips were just so much fun.

“You just bond with all the people and they’re just things to remember.”

Seabury Hall’s Ella Connor (right) and Skylar Conley defend the net during an MIL match on Oct. 14, 2019.

Connor said she got her first look into what the volleyball community offered in the seventh grade when her parents played three mornings a week in Kihei, where she would either “surf or play with the adults and it was just really fun.”

Ella’s father Brian Connor, also Seabury’s head coach, said that his daughter seemed interested in the sport right away and grasped the game fundamentals early on.

“It was incredible to get to see her grow and learn and add new skills, and really get exposed to a wealth of information from all the different coaches along her way,” he said. “A whole group of people, who are essentially family now, played with us and they would let the kids play. And we would play on the weekends as a family either at Big Beach or Kanaha, and so she was always around it.”

The impact that volleyball has had on his eldest daughter’s life is “immeasurable,” he added, due to the opportunities she had to travel across the U.S. and outside the country.

“But more so you are able to get exposed to wonderful coaches, teammates, opponents, the whole ohana that just exists nationwide,” said Brian Connor. “It’s just a great group to be a part of, and that wherever you go, somebody knows somebody.”

And Ella, too, expressed gratitude.

“The people are just truly amazing,” she said. “It’s just a welcoming community.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted MIL competition last year, the Connor family of five was able to spend more time together and do volleyball drills in their neighborhood cul-de-sac.

But now Ella Connor is leaving the nest, prepping to play for a top-ranked Big West Conference program where she will be mentored by head beach volleyball coach Todd Rogers, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist.

“I’m so excited. I think they’re currently ranked fifth, for a few weeks in a row now so that’s really exciting,” Connor said. “I’m really excited for the group of girls that are going in with me, I’m excited to meet the girls that are on the team with me, I’m ready to have a really fun time.”

Having the opportunity to be coached by Rogers is “unreal,” she added, noting how he cares about his players’ well-being both on and off the court.

Rogers told The Maui News in January how he’s looking forward to bringing Connor into the program.

“Ella is a great person first and foremost with major league talent to boot. She has all the tools to be a great collegiate beach volleyball player and who knows after that,” he said. “She is tall, but I would not square peg her to be a blocker. She can certainly be a blocker with her height and length, but my hope is to train her as both a defender and blocker to make her the most well-rounded player I can.

“Ella has also done well in school and will thrive at Cal Poly surrounded by like-minded students who compete very hard in the classroom.”

Since Connor already committed to the university as a high school freshman, it’s clear that collegiate play has been on her mind for some time.

So, when sports statewide were canceled due to COVID-19, it was a relatively easy decision for Connor to finish her senior year classes online and move to Seattle to live with a future college teammate, getting some playing time in before reporting to San Luis Obispo in September.

She will return home to Maui in May for Seabury’s graduation, but until then, Connor said “I’ve been loving it so far.”

“I’ve been able to play with DaKine Volleyball Club and we’ve traveled, and it’s just been really fun,” she said.

Rogers already sees that Connor can take “her game as far as she wants to take it” because of her athleticism as well as her ability to be tough and level-headed on the court.

“The seeds are there for her to be successful at the next level if she has the desire to do so,” he said. “Those seeds need to be watered and cultivated though, as there are still many years to develop and become better to reach her potential. I’m stoked that I can be a part of that for four years at Cal Poly.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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