As sisters, childhood best friends and teammates in every level of collegiate volleyball, Arizona’s Emi and Mahina Pua’a have shared a lifelong bond.
The Punahou products have maintained that they aren’t a package deal, but the two have certainly embraced and appreciated being there for each other at every step of the way.
Emi, who is a year older than Mahina, was the first to leave home in pursuit of her college volleyball dreams. She started her college career at Iowa Western Community College then transferred to Arizona after two seasons. Mahina took the exact same path to Tuscon, where she is now a junior.
“It kind of just worked out like that. When Emi first went to Iowa Western, it was my senior year and I was still looking at places to go,” Mahina recalls. “I ended up taking a visit there and I loved it. My sophomore year of college, when Emi was at Arizona, I happened to be recruited from them and it kind of just worked out for us.
“We never really planned to go to college together but it worked out well.”
Because of the one-year age gap between the two, there were years when the two were all alone at their respective schools. That separation gave each a chance to grow independently.
“It’s definitely hard being away, especially because I am the oldest. Personally for me, I think it was very hard not having any family close to me, especially in Iowa. It was definitely a learning and a growing experience personally and emotionally, all that kind of stuff, feeling all those emotions being away from home for the first time,” Emi said. “I’m just very grateful and blessed I was able to do those things, because I think right now it’s made me the person that I am today.”
“It was definitely hard but it was worth it. I made tons of new friends, met so many awesome people and saw so many different places. I’m just very grateful for that.”
Mahina echoes those sentiments. Having Emi there her first year at Iowa Western made the transition smoother, and being alone her second year helped her grow even more.
“My freshman year, I was definitely blessed to go to a new place coming from home and having my sister there. I automatically had a friend,” Mahina said. “My sophomore year when she left and I was alone, it was definitely a big change for me because I had friends, but it was also the first time I didn’t have any family. I grew a lot as a person that sophomore year and I’m lucky to be able to go to Arizona and have her again.”
Their relationship hasn’t made them any less hard on each other, and there has been no shortage of competition between the two.
“When we were little, our dad would take us to the track since we lived next to Kalani High school and we would just race,” Mahina said. “The competitiveness was always there.”
“If one person’s doing better, the other wants to push to do a little more and be better,” Emi added. “We’re never settling and we’re always trying to be better because our parents always tell us there’s someone better than you out there so always stay humble.”
Mahina is a setter, while Emi is a libero/defensive specialist. Mahina was the only one between the two to earn NCJAA All-American honors, but Emi has seen the court more at Arizona. Mahina has appeared in 35 sets this season, while Emi has played in 101 of them. During Emi’s junior year, she was one of two Wildcats to play in every match.
Since it’s Emi’s senior year with Arizona, the two understand that they have just four matches matches left to play with each other. At 14-14 overall and 4-12 in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats are unlikely to be selected as an at-large to the NCAA tournament.
Injuries have contributed to the Wildcats not having the same amount of success as years past, but Emi in particular wants to leave a lasting impression on the program and head coach David Rubio, especially so the team can have a positive head start toward the 2020 season.
“Just trying to leave a footprint for the younger girls like my sister and the underclassmen just so they know how hard you have to work and the effort that is expected,” Emi said. “Other teams have complimented our coaches and our team about how gritty we are. There’s other Polynesians on our team like Kamaile Hiapo — we’ve always been raised to play like that.
“I think just trying to help the rest of the team and never give up on a play. It doesn’t matter what size you are, just something I’m trying to work on to leave to the team for the rest of the season.”
It hasn’t taken Emi’s playing career coming to a close for the Pua’a sisters to realize how special their journey has been.
“It’s just been a blessing. We grew up playing with each other, playing from high school to JUCO to a big D-I (school),” Emi said. “It’s been awesome to have each other and lean on each other when we’re physically and mentally exhausted. It’s just been a great experience.”
“We were always sisters, but I feel like playing together solidified our friendship much more, just because we’ve always had each other’s backs,” Mahina added.
The Wildcats close the season with home matches against No. 10 Washington, No. 22 Washington State, UCLA and Arizona State. Emi and Mahina say the games will be vital to the future of the program, especially next year, when it will be Mahina’s turn to be a senior.
When their playing careers are over, both are looking to prolong their academic pursuits. Mahina is a communications major with a minor in business and hopes to earn an MBA in the future.
Emi is also a communications major, and she’s aiming to stay in the volleyball world as a coach or counselor. She may even be a graduate assistant for Arizona next year if the position is open.
So maybe this won’t be the last season the Pua’a sisters are on the same team after all.
“That would be really cool,” Emi said. “That would be awesome if a spot could open up, but we’ll keep our options open for now.”