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After powering through lost seasons, Volner sees it all pay off with long-sought state gold

2021-22 MIL Athletes of the Year

Kaylee Volner - The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo

Bobby Grossman has coached winners of the girls 3,000-meter run at the Island Movers/HHSAA state track meet 10 times in his illustrious career.

Never, however, has the scene been as emotional for Grossman as it was when he met 2022 winner Kaylee Volner just past the finish line last month.

“It was pretty emotional, probably one of my more emotional moments,” said Grossman, the veteran Seabury Hall cross country/track and field coach. “It was more just COVID and her sticking with it and us working hard together — she stuck it out and got herself a victory. It was big.”

Volner, a recent Seabury Hall graduate who is headed to Santa Clara University to compete in the fall, was the state runner-up in cross country in 2019 and 2021 and was second again in the 1,500 meters at the state track meet in May — by just more than a second — less than an hour before she would toe the line in her final prep race.

This time, there would be no second place, no doubt about it.

Kaylee Volner celebrates after winning the girls 3,000-meter final at the state track and field championships on May 14 at Kamehameha Kapalama. She won the race by an astonishing 32 seconds. ANDREW LEE photo

Volner rolled to a 32-second victory in the 3,000, finishing in 10 minutes, 17.93 seconds, the fastest time that any of Grossman’s 3K state winners had ever recorded.

Volner was one of the guiding lights for Maui Interscholastic League athletes throughout the pandemic that cost her two track seasons and her junior cross country season.

Because of that grit and determination, today, she is The Maui News MIL Girl Athlete of the Year.

“I am so shocked right now,” Volner said via phone Wednesday from Reno, Nev., where she is watching her younger brother play in a baseball tournament. “I am so ecstatic, this is such an amazing honor and I’m just so happy and grateful to be getting this honor right now.”

Volner led a team of just five runners — all had to count in the scoring column at every meet — to the MIL cross country girls team title last fall. She was often the only runner who would show up for workouts with Grossman during the down times of the pandemic.

Volner takes a big lead en route to winning an MIL cross country meet on Oct. 16. Volner went on to win the MIL cross country title and place second at the state championship. The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo

“It wasn’t just the seconds because she’s had a few seconds, but she actually hasn’t had a lot of opportunity here, as much as others have had because of track being only two years for her, while others had four,” Grossman said. “So, she did all the club stuff and all those things that we were doing, just trying to manage things and keep engaged (during COVID).

“She stuck it out and continued to work hard, doing things on her own. She never wavered.”

Volner is somewhat amazed that she is done at Seabury Hall, but she leaves the Olinda campus with a smile on her face.

“I think I went out with a bang, but I definitely wish I still had some more time because with COVID and everything I missed a couple seasons and I wish I could relive those moments one more time,” Volner said.

Volner’s romp to the 3,000 title at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama on May 14 is something she will never forget.

“It was just so emotional because I knew it was my last high school race,” she said. “And I thought it was by far one of the best races I’ve ever ran. I think just in that moment, all the emotions hit me that my career in high school was done and I’m moving on to bigger things in life, but it was just such an amazing moment and honestly it still lives in my head.”

There were signs early in the track season that the magic of the state 3,000 might be on the horizon for Volner.

She ran meet records in the race at the Ruby Tuesday meet on March 19 on Oahu and then broke a long-standing mark in the Yamamoto Invitational six days later in Wailuku.

That kind of foundation put her mind to rest as she warmed up for her final race.

“I had an hour after my 1,500 to really clear my mind and just start off fresh because the 3,000 was such a different race than the 1,500,” Volner said. “And although I wanted to win the 1,500 also, the girl who won it, Izzy Ford (of Punahou), was just very prepared for that race and I couldn’t be mad about anything that happened because I ran my best time by far in the 1,500.

“So, I just needed to go into the 3,000 with a fresh mind and I definitely did that. I don’t know, it just felt right. I don’t really remember the race anymore, but I just remember feeling right and that this was my moment.”

Volner is the seventh winner of the MIL Girl Athlete of the Year award from Seabury Hall, joining state champion tennis player Kimmie Ouchi (1991), the inaugural winner, and fellow runners Tia Ferguson (2003-04), Dakota Grossman (2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14), Ava Shipman (2016-17), Veronica Winham (2017-18), and Chloe Gangnath (2018-19).

“It’s just so amazing, those girls are some of the best runners I’ve ever met and they have been my role models since I started running in sixth grade,” Volner said. “And to be a part of this honor and have them come before me, I’m just so grateful and I really hope that other girls also feel the way that I did towards these girls towards me.

“And I hope that I inspire younger runners to keep on pushing and shoot for those goals.”

Volner said that 20 months on the sidelines due to the pandemic made her senior season even more memorable and special. In the fall, she traveled to a national-level cross country meet in Idaho and finished 14th in a loaded field.

“It for sure does,” she said. “I got to experience so many great things my senior year like traveling to Idaho midseason of cross country to go to NXR nationals — that was just such an amazing experience and really helped me feel confident in my running ability.”

After being 12th in state cross country as a freshman and second as a sophomore, she was one of the favorites as a senior. Bad weather on the Big Island made the conditions tough to deal with and she finished second again.

“Although I was very bummed to not have become a state champion in cross country, I took that momentum with me to just keep pushing in track,” Volner said. “And for me to break a couple records at some meets and to become a state champion, three-time MIL champion in track and field, it was just so rewarding after so many months of not knowing if I would have any more meets to run.

“Just not knowing anything.”

The bond that grew between coach and runner is something both may never forget.

The first glimpses of Volner’s prowess on the track came when she was a freshman and finished fourth in the state 1,500 and third in the 3,000.

“We knew that was something she definitely could do,” Bobby Grossman said. “She can run all day, basically, she has the ability.”

Grossman was one of the few non-family members invited to the Seabury Hall luau for graduation in May — the Volner family wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Grossman is impressed perhaps even more by his latest protege as time goes by.

“She had hope — I don’t know where it was coming from sometimes,” he said. “I didn’t really ever ask any questions of her, like, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ … But she stuck it out and also made me stay with it also.”

Now, college running awaits. She received her workout requirements from her Santa Clara coach last week and is busy running on the road between her brother’s baseball games and the Town & Country Club team.

She reports to Santa Clara in mid-August.

“I am so excited, my coach, Pete Cushman, actually just sent me what my workouts should be last week, so I have been on my way to getting ready for college workouts,” Volner said. “And I’m just so excited. I’ve been talking to girls who are on the team currently and they are all just so amazing and supportive and I can’t wait to be teammates with them.”

She will carry plenty of confidence with her, directly linked to her state title. Her dad Rick Volner and mom Erin Volner will be in her corner, as they always have been.

“I definitely have a lot more confidence in myself than what I did when I first started running, and in my opinion confidence is very key in running,” she said. “My dad always says ‘running is 10 percent ability physically and 90 percent mental,’ so going in with that attitude is really going to help me because I hopefully want to make it to the travel team, want to be a scoring part of this team.

“I think if I can put my mind towards it anything can happen.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

*****

MIL Girl Athletes of the Year

1990-91–Kimmie Ouchi, Seabury Hall

1991-92–Jean Okada, Lahainaluna

1992-93–Joelynn Naki, Baldwin

1993-94–Kari Luna, Baldwin

1994-95–Prestine Foster, Baldwin

1995-96–Aina Kohler, Lahainaluna

1996-97–Aina Kohler, Lahainaluna

1997-98–Aloha Santiago, Baldwin, and Lisa Arcangel, Lahainaluna

1998-99–Cassie Coffin, St. Anthony

2000-01–Nicole Garbin, Baldwin

2001-02–Ashlyn Russell, Baldwin

2002-03–Chandi Bickford, King Kekaulike

2003-04–Kami Kapaku, Baldwin, and Tia Ferguson, Seabury Hall

2004-05–Emalia Suehiro, King Kekaulike

2005-06–Tiara Dole, St. Anthony

2006-07–Chelsea Machida, Maui High

2007-08–Bailey Massenburg, King Ke­kaulike

2008-09–Bailey Massenburg, King Ke­kaulike

2009-10–Kalei Adolpho, Molokai

2010-11–Kalei Adolpho, Molokai

2011-12–Dakota Grossman, Seabury Hall

2012-13–Dakota Grossman, Seabury Hall

2013-14–Dakota Grossman, Seabury Hall

2014-15–Lalelei Mataafa, Lahainaluna

2015-16–Lalelei Mataafa, Lahainaluna

2016-17–Ava Shipman, Seabury Hall

2017-18–Veronica Winham, Seabury Hall, and Rebecca Buenrostro-Gallimore, Baldwin

2018-19–Chloe Gangnath, Seabury Hall

2019-20–Nanea Estrella, Lahainaluna

2021-22–Kaylee Volner, Seabury Hall

Note: No winner selected in 1999-2000, 2020-21

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