Will To Win
The year was 2003. UC Irvine women’s volleyball finished in a three-way tie for second in the Big West Conference and received an at-large berth into the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament where it went on to defeat Missouri in a five-set marathon, UCI’s one and only postseason victory. The Anteaters returned to the postseason the following year, but would unfortunately kick off a postseason drought that is still alive.
Quarterbacking the back-to-back postseason teams was none other than All-Big West setter Ashlie Hain, the current coach of the UC Irvine women’s volleyball team. Hain returned to her alma mater in 2015 and in just her third season has lifted the team from two fifth place conference finishes to a program that is in contention for capturing its first Big West title with a 6-1 Big West mark. UC Irvine is also two wins away from eclipsing the 20-win threshold, a feat the Anteaters haven’t mastered since the 2009 squad tallied 22 wins.
The quick rise to the top wasn’t an easy road. Hain was hired late in the offseason leading into the 2015 season which caused a few challenges in her first season.
“It was really hard to train the way you want and to have a system that you want implemented in a few weeks,” stated Hain. “The first year was touch and go and just maintaining the level needed, on the mental side of it, was hard.”
Overcoming the struggles in her first year led to a more successful second offseason where the student-athletes started to grasp the physical demands and the mental toughness that was needed to win night after night. Hain believes the first two years she had solid teams but they just struggled to play consistently night after night at a higher level and committed too many errors.
So what changed in 2017? Hain claims mental toughness as the big difference with this year’s team and she first realized that in the spring when the Anteaters played the Blizzards pro team that consists of former All-Americans and overseas athletes.
“We played the pro team and we just dug and dug and served tough and they couldn’t do anything,” commented Hain. “I just sat back and said ‘huh’, we are pretty good. We can play defense and we can serve tough and we have some smart hitters that can find the gaps and a great setter and libero that will help us win most games.”
Hain was hopeful the Anteaters would have a successful year, but admittedly thinks they have performed better than originally expected.
“I thought we’d be around .500 to be honest, so to be 18-2 feels pretty good,” said Hain.
A catalyst for this year’s team is junior Harlee Kekauoha, one of four captains on the team who currently ranks in the top 10 in the conference in hitting percentage and kills and is number one in service aces. She was a skinny freshman when she began her career at UC Irvine, but over the course of her first two years donning the blue and gold, she would improve her mental toughness, as well as her physical presence. Always looking to get better, Kekauoha did so by playing in every single match of her career which catapulted her growth and development. After her freshman campaign, Kekauoha added the jump serve to her arsenal and has paced the conference in service aces ever since.
“She has grown leaps and bounds physically,” Hain mentioned about Kekauoha. “From the maturity standpoint I am even more proud of her as she’s become more poised and confident this year. Harlee has placed priority on her physical fitness and has committed time to it every day. It’s not something that you can tell someone overnight and they change. It is something that can take days, months or years to build the physical and mental toughness it takes to play at this level.”
Two-time Big West Player of the Week in 2017, Kekauoha concurs with Coach Hain on the fact that she has worked on the mental side of the game to help perform day in and day out. It’s believed that mental toughness is what separates the good athletes from the great athletes. She also credits the culture the coaching staff brought to UC Irvine for the team’s success this year - learning to play with grit.
“The team has adapted to the new culture of the coaching staff and the will to win,” stated Kekauoha. “While the team is tight-knit like a family, we are still a business here and we have grit and work hard on being consistent on the court.”
While she states that there is a business-like feel to the program, there is also the passion that fuels the drive with the main goal of hers to leave the program well off by the time she leaves UC Irvine. As a silent leader, who leads by example on the court, Kekauoha is succeeding in enriching the Anteaters program but she’s not doing it alone. A few transfers have found immediate success on the Anteaters squad.
Setter Ali Koumelis and libero Luna Tsujimoto were walk-on transfers who both earned their spot on the team and eventually a scholarship, which Hain describes as a pretty special and unique situation. They both bought into the program and believed in what the Anteaters are working towards - a Big West title. Koumelis knew Hain so she contacted UC Irvine when she decided to leave Portand while Tsujimoto was homesick and returned to Orange County after a one-year stint at Ohio State. Assistant coach Sabrina Hernandez had worked with Tsujimoto at the club level so it was a good fit. Both student-athletes are making their presence felt around the Big West Conference this season with Koumelis sitting second in the league with a 10.29 assist average and Tsujimoto holding the third slot in digs with a 4.19 average.
With the players coming into their own on the court, the Anteaters seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle set to reach the ultimate goal of capturing the Big West Conference Championship.
“A championship, that’s the goal,” said Hain. “We tell our recruits as soon as they get here that our goal is the Big West Championship, and here is what it is going to take here at UCI to obtain that. They are committing to a tough offseason, coaches that demand a lot and won’t settle and have high expectations. We make that clear to our players. We want them to love their experience but it isn’t going to be easy and I think they appreciate the honesty.”
And the players haven’t seemed to shy away from the challenge. In fact, they have welcomed it.
“In the offseason, everyone was back on the court and you could see the benefits of all the hard work as the players worked on bettering themselves,” explained Kekauoha. “ We started scrimmaging and everything just seemed to fit together. You could see the improvement in each other and we were connecting on the court.”
Kekauoha explained that she definitely can see, because of the way the team chemistry is going, the team challenging for a Big West title this year and possibly next year. Coach Hain echoed her statements and feels that the team could contend for a title this season but would have to pull off a few upsets. But she warns, don’t put anything past this team because they have a lot of heart and grit.
Along with a conference title, Kekauoha also has her eyes on the postseason especially because making the NCAA Tournament has a sentimental component.
“Making it to the tournament would be really cool especially since the last time UC Irvine made the tournament was when my coach (Hain) played here,” commented Kekauoha. “That would just be insane.”
The future is bright for the UC Irvine women’s volleyball program as Hain has a fairly young team, as they only lose two players to graduation this year. And she’s excited for what lies ahead, especially since 2018 features her first full recruiting class. And she’s finding success back where it all started for her...at UC Irvine.
“It feels good to be here and I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing,” said Hain. “I really believe in this program and what we have to offer from both the academic and athletic standpoint. People say our program is like family and I really feel that. For me it is an easy sell when I go out recruiting and talk about the program because I really believe in it and what we could be and it is nice to see us going in that direction.”
It has been 13 years since Hain led her team to its last postseason appearance as a setter for UC Irvine. The question now is, can she snap the postseason drought – this time as head coach of the program? The pieces are in place and the team has found success in 2017 so the ultimate goal of a Big West Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance are well within reach.