It’s not too often in high school sports that one team loses their coach and immediately replaces them with someone held in similar high regard. But the Mesa girls’ volleyball team did just that this season.
Vee Hiapo will took over both the boys’ and girls’ volleyball teams at Mesa High School this offseason, stepping in for long-time head coach, Amy Strawn. In her first year, Hiapo recognizes the history of this program and what she is stepping into.
“This is the 50-year celebration of Mesa high girls’ volleyball,” Hiapo said. “They’ve come really close but trying to teach them to win the ultimate one [a state championship] is a combination of all the coaches and all the players and what they have done already. It’s my privilege to come now, unify the years together and make it happen.”
This is not the beginning of Hiapo’s legacy when it comes to Arizona volleyball.
A long history of impactful coaching follows the new Jackrabbit coach. Whether it be helping out the prestigious Molten Volleyball Club that her family owns or running the volleyball program at Skyline High School the last several seasons.
“I was headed to another school to only coach boys when Mesa called me to interview because coach Strawn retired,” Hiapo said.
Hesitant at first, Hiapo was not sure if taking responsibility for the boys’ and girls’ team was in her best interest, but now she is ecstatic that she did.
“It felt good like I was back in Hawaii. So, the family atmosphere and what they were all about was very intriguing,” Hiapo said.
With her knowledge of coach Strawn, she had confidence when the opportunity arose, adding, “I did not plan on coming to Mesa or coaching girls, but I am so glad I did, it’s a wonderful program.”
Hiapo’s history with Amy Strawn goes even further. She had the pleasure of coaching several of her children. Beyond that, she often coached against Strawn in high school, as well as in club volleyball.
This connection makes continuing the family-oriented program that much easier for Hiapo.
However, even though the transition of leadership has been seamless, this young season has seen its fair share of challenges. When that happens, the returning varsity players do what they can to ease the transition.
Junior, Jazlyn Jackson has been on varsity since she was a freshman and is enjoying the process.
“It’s been very different, but I think different is good,” Jackson said. “We have a lot to work on, like getting out of our own heads. The physicality is there, but volleyball is really mental, and we still need to get better in that area.”
The junior outside hitter has been with both Strawn and now Hiapo as head coaches. She’s seen some similarities between the two.
“I like that it’s very family-oriented,” Jackson said. “She’s big on all of us coming together, freshman and JV, too, not just varsity.”
When an underclassman makes varsity, the family-oriented style becomes that much more important for a new coach taking over. As usual, the hardest part is getting the upperclassmen to get on board. For a first-time varsity player, the sky is the limit on the impact Hiapo can have on them.
Freshman Sally Cummard is getting her first taste as a high school varsity volleyball player. She has an older sister, as well as cousins who are on the team, too.
“I was not expecting to make varsity coming in as a freshman, but it has been really cool to play with my sister and cousins finally,” Cummard said.
With their previous experience with Strawn, Cummard is thankful she got to play under her for one club season.
Now in high school, she gets a new opportunity with a new head coach.
“It’s definitely different than what my sister experienced,” Cummard said.
Hiapo is very soft-spoken off the court, but her passion is obvious when you see her on the bench. Cummard said her fierceness has been hard to get used to. But the girls are beginning to embrace it.
That, along with other qualities, have helped players like Jackson become more than just a player.
“I think she’s helped me become a leader, the last two years I did not lead much as an underclassman,” Jackson said.
While Hiapo recognizes the importance of instituting her own culture with the program, she recognizes the history of Mesa and wants that to remain unchanged.
It may only be the beginning of Hiapo’s journey with the Jackrabbits, but the culture is already setting in.
She believes that’s a sign of good things to come.
“I want to enhance what they’ve already had for years,” Hiapo said. “This is one of the best programs I’ve taught at, and now (I get) to teach them to win a state championship.”