UH volleyball players provide life lessons to students at clinic

University of Hawaii men’s volleyball player Colton Cowell understands the challenge of making an NCAA Division I team as a walk-on.

Forget gaining your team’s respect when you haven’t earned a uniform.

Cowell, now one of the Rainbows’ senior leaders and team captains, found himself in the same position former Island School volleyball player Kaheamoana Kamalani is in now.

Kamalani, a walk-on freshman, is working to earn his spot on a roster with world-class athletes that can jump out of the gym.

No easy task.

The Rainbows’ volleyball team was at Kauai High School, offering students instructional clinics Friday before displaying their Olympic-caliber athleticism during Saturday night’s scrimmage.

Recalling the challenge of being a new player at the collegiate level, the senior showcased his leadership skills.

Cowell is a natural leader, and he leads his team consciously.

Cowell let the sole Kauai native on the team, a true freshman, own the moment during his homecoming.

During a team showcase, it is customary to throw free merchandise, such as T-shirts, into the crowd for the audience to try to catch.

What Cowell did next was pure aloha!

He handed Kamalani the shirt to throw into the crowd, and let the Kauai native own the moment.

“I wanted him to understand this is his moment,” Cowell said. “He is a great person with a bright future in front of him. He has a good head on his shoulders, is willing to work hard for the opportunities and make the most of them.”

‘A minnow in an ocean’

The respect Cowell showed Kamalani was more than just public relations lip service, because it was sincere.

Kamalani was enjoying the moment, and admitted he enjoyed his return home in front of family and friends.

Despite all of the local admiration, the former Island School student and Kilauea native put the moment in its proper context.

Once a tennis standout, it wasn’t until his junior and senior seasons that he began to focus on volleyball, after his mother Roni Marley encouraged him to play in off-island club competitions.

After transferring from Island to Kaiser after his sophomore year, Kamalani dedicated himself to volleyball.

During his time at Kaiser, Kamalani lettered twice in volleyball and played club volleyball for the Outrigger Canoe Club in 2019, and Spike and Serve.

Playing against high-level competition and being a member of an NCAA Division I school helped him gain perspective.

“Volleyball has helped me grow, and it has humbled me,” Kamalani said. “In high school, I was the top dog. Now I am a minnow in an ocean.”

Lessons learned

The best leaders and teachers sometimes are spawned by growing through adverse situations.

Cowell is not just a good mentor for our rising island star. His back story is a shining example for Kauai kids who aspire to be where Cowell and Kamalani are today.

The story Cowell shares with his teammates and to volleyball players at the clinic is one of failure.

During his sophomore season with the Rainbows, Cowell faced the possibility of being cut, and was given an ultimatum of being a redshirt libero.

Facing the possibility of being cut, Cowell grew in the face of adversity.

Cowell learned more about his new position, and eventually earned back his starting role.

“I learned to overcome the adversity by learning to control the variables I could control, and accepting the ones I couldn’t,” Cowell said. “If it weren’t for multiple occasions of failure on the court, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”

Cowell just made himself better, exponentially, and eventually was a participant on the U.S. Pan American Cup team in Colima, Mexico.

Cowell led the U.S. team with 47 kills and was among the tournament’s top scorers.

His success allowed him to play in the Pan American Games in Peru, where he helped the U.S. finish sixth. He led the team with 16 kills in a tournament-opening loss to Chile.

Named to the NCAA Championship all-tournament team in 2019 and anchoring one of the nation’s top volleyball teams is enough about his credentials.

The lessons he is teaching Kamalani, his team, and the attentive youngsters absorbing his messages, are far more critical.

It’s about having inevitable adversity, and it’s about dealing with it.

Kamalani, who is learning his lessons, has a great leader to reference from, and having this opportunity to play for the University of Hawaii should not only make the Kauai native a better volleyball player but a better person.

Kamalani, who signed over 100 autographs for fans, never considered himself a “role model.”

“I never thought of myself to be the type of person to ever autograph something,” Kamalani said. “It’s cool to give back to the community. They are all excited to see me standing in a line of faces and taking pictures. Giving back to the island is something that has given me so much,” Kamalani said.

The Kauai kids attending the clinic weren’t just offered lessons with NCAA Division I players and some of the best volleyball players in the world. They were taught lessons that will carry them far beyond the court.

Isn’t that as important as the opportunity to be the next Kamalani off this island?


Jason Blasco, sports reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or jblasco@thegardenisland.com.


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