While first learning to play volleyball, Harlee Kekauoha had trouble deciding which arm to swing at the ball with. If it fell on her right, she would use her right arm; her left, her left arm. It was only at the behest of her father that Kekauoha would settle on her left hand, despite being naturally right-handed.
Over a decade later, Kekauoha has since come to experience a tremendous amount of success in the sport, collecting numerous medals with her club team Mizuno Long Beach and helping spearhead the resurgence of the North Torrance High girls’ volleyball program to league titles in 2012 and 2013.
Fast forward to the present day, and Kekauoha is now the starting opposite for the UCI women’s volleyball team — and as a true freshman no less. With a little under half a season to go, Kekauoha’s stats already speak for themselves; as of Oct. 10, Kekauoha has been recognized as a Big West Freshman Player of the Week, and is currently the team leader in kills (222), kills per set (3.26) and service aces (28).
While southpaws possess an inherent advantage in nearly all sports, there is far more to Kekauoha’s success than just her ambidexterity: namely, a tireless work ethic and an insatiable desire to be the best.
“You can never get more reps, there’s never enough to me that I see in volleyball. I can always work on something, and it keeps me on my toes,” said Kekuaoha. “I want to be the best; with that comes just the constant reminder that [I] love this sport so much, that [I’ll] give [my] undivided attention it.”
Kekauoha was introduced to the sport by her father, who often reminisced about the time he spent playing during his last two years of high school in Hawai’i. When she was seven, Kekauoha’s father began exposing her to the sport more by bringing her to practice sessions of his club volleyball team, Westside Ohana in Culver City. He had her help pick up balls after drills.
With an aunt that also coached volleyball and two older sisters who played, it was only a matter of time before Kekauoha would take to the court herself.
“To me, sports wasn’t an option. You had to find a sport you were good at,” said Kekauoha. “Since my dad played volleyball and my mom grew around the sport of volleyball, they were just like, ‘Harlee, you’re going to play volleyball!’”
Shortly thereafter, Kekauoha’s schedule came to revolve around volleyball. Whether it was attending a club practice, a game, or a clinic, volleyball simply came to become an everyday part of her life. Even after games, Kekauoha could be found practicing her serves and passes if she had a particularly bad day.
Despite growing up in a never-ending loop of volleyball, homework, sleep, repeat, Kekauoha developed an unshakeable fervor and appreciation for the sport. So much so, that at times the Long Beach native needs to remind herself to take a breather and spend time with her family and friends.
“When I do step back, I miss volleyball even more,” said Kekauoha. “It’s just so much of a passion, and just so much of an identity to me, that it’s harder for me to be without it, then to kind of step away.”
This bodes well for the Anteaters, as it has become apparent that a large portion of the program’s success in the years to come will rest on the shoulders of the Long Beach native.
One can only imagine how Kekauoha will continue to evolve, as she has already displayed a degree of mental toughness typically only seen in more experienced players.
During the team’s 3-0 loss to Cal Poly last week, Kekauoha was held to one kill apiece in the first two sets. Instead of allowing herself to be intimidated, however, Kekauoha continued to swing at the ball without hesitation and put the ball away four times in the third set to finish the night with six kills.
“She’s always offensive, which is huge,” said first-year head coach Ashlie Hain. “Some freshman just totally vacate and go elsewhere; she [hangs] onto herself offensively (…) [I’m] proud of her for that.”
To Kekauoha, backing down has never been an option, thanks to the dual obligations she carries both to her team and to herself each time she takes to the court.
“If you’re not going to kill the ball, then why be on the court? Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t expect to start, but I know that every chance I have to fight just to secure my position,” said Kekauoha. “If my team trusts me enough to set me the ball, it’s my objective to put it away.”
According to Hain, the team has come to expect so much out of Kekauoha on a routine basis that, at times, they forget she’s still only a freshman. And while Kekauoha does admit that the pressure can be a bit overwhelming at times, she has begun to learn to embrace her role as the team’s likely go-to player for the next couple of years.
With all the success Kekauoha has had thus far, she is careful to keep herself grounded by constantly reminding herself of the countless hours and work she had to put in first to reach this point today. Even now, Kekauoha is quick to state that while the coaching staff may view her as a contributor to the program, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be a starter in the years to come.
However, as a player with her sights set on being named an All-American and winning a Big West Conference Title, Kekauoha will be sure to leave a lasting impact on the program one way or another.
“I just don’t want to go in and out through this program. I want to leave a mark (…) and I want to leave this program better than how it was this year,” said Kekauoha.