Lia Gaogao: Change for the better (extended)

Lia Gaogao takes pride in her passing game. Dennis Oda / Star-Advertiser
Lia Gaogao takes pride in her passing game. Dennis Oda / Star-Advertiser

(Here’s the extended version of this morning’s feature story on Moanalua senior volleyball player Lia Gaogao.)

Change is good, even if it takes a lot of work.

That’s what Silerolia “Lia” Gaogao knows well enough. She was part of a promising group of volleyball standouts at Maryknoll four years ago, but when the school opted to go in another direction, talent dispersed across the island. Gaogao and her heavy-ball rockets wound up at Moanalua with coach Tommy Lake, where she became a starter from freshman year on.

Lake stepped down after last season. More change, more growth. Seeing Coach Lake leave wasn’t easy.

“We were kind of surprised he left because he was there for a long time. I was kind of scared. Having a good coach matters to us,” she said.

Boys coach Alan Cabanting was selected to take over the girls program. While Lake’s girls team was a perennial OIA title contender and state-tourney qualifier, the boys squad under Cabanting was successful, as well. But no two coaches are alike.

“It’s hard because Coach Tommy has mellow, chill practices. Now it’s bam, bam, bam at every practice,” Gaogao said.
Learning a new system was a challenge.

“Sometimes, we kind of get lost and he has to explain it,” she said.

The result, though, has been a 6-0 record in OIA play, not including a comeback, exhibition win over ‘Iolani on Thursday.

“I think we are together as one. I know people are expecting me and Jojo to hit all the time, but now we have our middle, Katy (Ehnstrom), hitting and our opposite (Pume Nedlic), the other teams don’t know who to block.”

Cabanting knew a lot about the “heavy ball” that Gaogao hits from the left, middle and right. But coaching her has been a pleasant experience.

“She’s one of those leaders that you follow just because she’s doing everything she’s supposed to be doing both technique-wise and as a teammate. Everybody wants to follow her because she’s that role model. She’s not necessarily vocal, but definitely, you want to follow her leadership,” he said.

Lia Gaogao gets better by competing against players like Austin Matautia (left) and Addison Enriquez. Dennis Oda / Star-Advertiser.
Lia Gaogao gets better by competing against players like Austin Matautia (left) and Addison Enriquez. Dennis Oda / Star-Advertiser.

Gaogao’s future is now, in a sense. A middle blocker since taking up the sport as a 10-year-old, Gaogao worked diligently on her back-row defense through the offseason. With Gaogao and teammate Johanna “Jojo” Kruize hammering from all locations, Na Menehune are far less predictable and far more dangerous.

The exhibition match with ‘Iolani allowed fans to see a microcosm of Gaogao’s evolution as a defender. Late in the third and final set, the server went at Gaogao in the back row, and she struggled to make passes. The visiting Raiders rallied to tie the game as a result. Then Gaogao adjusted her passing technique, Moanalua scored back-to-back points and went on to take the match.

“That was kind of scary. Now I know how to adjust. I’ve learned from my mistakes and when they happen, I know I can get back and fix it,” she said. “It’s kind of hard because I can’t always hit all the time, but it helps our team if I can pass, and Jojo is a good hitter.”

In the span of four serve-receives, she showed that all the offseason work is paying off in pressure situations against very good teams. ‘Iolani was ranked No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, just ahead of fourth-ranked Moanalua. When she wasn’t working out with Ka Ulukoa Volleyball Club during the offseason, she put in extra reps.

“Me and my dad (Jeff) would go to the gym and work just on passing. His serves are kind of hard — they move around. Probably like an hour and a half every day. Some hitting, but most of it is passing. And it’s hot in there. In the summer, we go three days a week,” she said. “We started (working on passing) my sophomore year. It gets better and better every year. My dad, he’s taught me a lot.”

Jeff Gaogao grew up in American Samoa, a multiple-sport athlete at Samoana High School. His two oldest children inherited his athleticism and competitive drive.

Remo, who graduated from Punahou in June, and Lia were both voted to the Star-Advertiser Fab 15 All-State team last season. Remo, who now plays at Southern Utah, has always played volleyball.

“My sister was really good and I wanted to be like her. She started playing before me. When she was playing volleyball, I was playing soccer,” she said.

Lia started playing for Ka Ulukoa at 10 and has since traveled every year, going as far away as Florida.

Making the transition from her club volleyball position, middle blocker, to her future position is key. At 6 feet tall, she has hops and power in that right arm, but middles in Division I college volleyball are almost always much taller. Being able to stay on the court as a serviceable (or better) back row player helps her team and opens up her potential as a college prospect.

Remo set the tone years ago.

“I miss her. I miss working out with her. She’s my workout partner. We’re sisters, but we act like brothers,” Lia said.

Following Remo to Southern Utah, however, is not on her list of options.

“I want to go out and find my own road,” she said.

She walks the walk. She puts time and effort into preparation off the court as much as she does on it. A Thursday afternoon was spent with a study group for a trigonometry exam the following day. Friday, after school, another study group session overlapped volleyball practice. She has blessing of Cabanting, who teaches science at Moanalua. With a 3.6 grade-point average last semester and 3.0 cumulative GPA, Gaogao plans to take the SAT for a second time in October.

Dr. Gaogao has a ring to it, for sure. Gaogao (pronounced nau-nau) has wanted to be a pediatrician for a long time.

“My auntie (Erolia Matautia) was a nurse. She was always one of my nicest aunties. She’d take us out to breakfast and come to our volleyball games,” Gaogao said.

Nearly three years ago, her aunt died after a year-long battle with breast cancer. When ‘Iolani and Moanalua met last week — a fundraiser for Moanalua teacher Alyson Rod, who is battling stomach cancer — pre-game player introductions were bypassed in favor of announcing the names of players’ relatives and family friends, women and men who have fought the disease.

Erolia Matautia was just 52. Through the loss of her aunt, changing schools, pushing hard academically, Gaogao has remained rock solid. Grounded. Her mom, Evelyn, and dad bring steady support. Cabanting and his staff keep the squad focused.

“We have our notebooks and we write down what our goal is for that week and how we can make it better, how we can reach it,” Gaogao said. “It helps us to focus on that one goal for that week.”

Gaogao may seem a bit shy, but she’s not bashful about her team’s dream. Moanalua hasn’t won the OIA since 2007 and has never won the state crown. The last OIA school to win the girls volleyball state crown was Kahuku in 2002.

“We talk about championships all the time. OIA is a team goal. States, too. Every year, we’re right behind the private schools,” she said. “Now that we beat ‘Iolani, I feel like we can get closer and closer.”


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