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UH title brings back fond memories for Podlewski

Maui High graduate was starting libero on Warriors’ 2002 squad

Vernon Podlewski poses for a photo with wife Sara and children Maile, 13, and Makena, 9. The Maui High School graduate sees a lot of himself in Colton Cowell, a fellow Maui native who recently helped the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team win the national title. Photo courtesy of Vernon Podlewski

Before Colton Cowell, there was Vernon Podlewski.

Cowell, a King Kekaulike High School graduate, capped a remarkable career on the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team Saturday with an NCAA crown when the Rainbow Warriors swept BYU in Columbus, Ohio.

Podlewski, a Maui High graduate, was the starting libero on the 2002 UH team that beat Pepperdine in four sets in State College, Pa., for the NCAA crown that was later vacated due to the use of an ineligible player.

Podlewski was watching intently on Saturday as UH climbed back to the top of men’s college volleyball.

“It looked like they were handling the situation just fine — it seemed like BYU could not pass the ball,” Podlewski said Tuesday during his lunch break from work as a stevedore on Hawaii island. “And they just went pedal to the metal.”

Like Cowell, who was a little-used walk-on for his first two seasons in Manoa, Podlewski’s journey to national champion for UH was unconventional. He had 11 digs in the national championship match, but it took some time for him to get there.

In 1994, he graduated from Maui High, where he played for Sheryl (Hoopii) Paschoal, who was fresh off of two NAIA national titles while playing for BYU-Hawaii.

Podlewski stepped away from the game for five years before returning to play for Santa Barbara City College, where then-Hawaii coach Mike Wilton found him playing the new position of libero.

“I was working in between then, wasn’t ready to go to college, wasn’t prepared,” Pod­lewski said. “So, when the opportunity came to play JC it just came at the right time.”

Libero was a godsend for Podlewski, a defensive specialist made for the serve-receive, passing position.

“My sophomore year at JC, 2000, was when libero came out,” he said. “My plan was never to go to UH, they didn’t know who I was. I was just this little guy. When that position came out, that’s when I got the call and Mike Wilton came to watch me practice at Santa Barbara. He said, ‘I want you to come out and play libero.’

“My plan was to come home and use my Hawaiian tuition waiver to pay for my schooling, finish off my last two years at UH. And now I got to play for two more years? It was the best thing ever.”

He is now married to the former Sara Harvey — they have two children, Maile, 13, and Makena, 9. Podlewski pulls out a grainy copy of the national championship match on DVD for his kids to watch every so often.

“They laugh and what they say is, ‘Wow, the TV is terrible,’ and the second thing they say is, ‘Dad, you were so young,’ “ Podlewski said with a laugh.

Podlewski has watched Cowell with pride for several years. Podlewski stands 5-foot-8 and hails from Haliimaile. Cowell is a 6-1 outside hitter who grew up in Makawao.

“Huge pride for the guy, the guy has always been a stud,” Podlewski said. “It is like it goes back to him being a smaller outside hitter, probably proving everybody wrong. Same situation as me with my position of libero. After that win that he has now, that just solidifies things, proves all the doubters wrong.

“It’s gone, like, ‘Can they win a championship?’ Like the way they did, and all the doubters are all gone because it is their time and their celebration. What a good win for that guy, he’s worked so hard.”

Podlewski perked up when asked about the pride he felt for his home island after the ‘Bows wrapped up the crown convincingly against their arch-rival.

“It was like watching myself,” Podlewski said. “A small guy in the big fishpond. You’re balling out with joy, for him, for me. I just enjoyed playing volleyball. Being from Maui, it was never like I was on the best team. I enjoyed training and getting better, seeing how far I could go.

“Whether I had to make the move to Oahu or the Mainland, all that was just coming from a small island. It was great to have everything come together and the reward is when it comes together.”

Podlewski remembers his days with the loaded 2002 Hawaii starting lineup of Costas Theocharidis, Dejan Miladinovic, Eyal Zimet, Tony Ching, Kimo Tuyay and Delano Thomas fondly.

“Even the guys now, whenever they watch a volleyball match, whoever wins, they are going to be like, ‘Dude, I was there, I had my time, too,’ “ Podlewski said. “It’s time to celebrate and talk story with your friends.”

Podlewski played for the U.S. national team for three years — he was an Olympic team alternate in 2004 — before playing three years professionally, one in Romania and two in Germany.

Another Maui High graduate, Dionisio Dante, was a standout for UH after Podlewski.

“Absolutely, Maui guys can play,” Podlewski said. “I remember playing a lot at Paia gym all the time, playing sand at Kamaole (Park) I. I think now Kalama beach has the nets; Kanaha, too. I remember all those places. I remember growing up, it was just good people. Volleyball just brings out good people that play and you just can’t help but keep coming back.

“I remember all the guys on Maui, they would teach you how to be better. … Growing up on Maui was just awesome. I think Colton is the same way, he had good people to support him and grow with the sport.”

Podlewski still has his national championship ring despite the banner being taken down from the Stan Sheriff Center and the official crown being vacated.

“My job was to show up and do my job — and I did,” he said. “It wasn’t my job to worry about the rules and everything. It kind of leads me into life lessons at work. I come to work, I do my thing, I don’t worry about other people, what they think and what they do.

“I’m here to do my job and as long as my bosses are happy with me, that’s all I care about.”

His championship ring makes an occasional appearance on the dinner table.

“Oh yeah, yeah, it’s there,” he said. “It’s nice and shiny. I have to bust it out every once in a while.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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