Hawaii's Tayler Higgins trained to be a setter by family upbringing
HONOLULU -- A little bit of quarterback. A little bit of linebacker. A little bit of center.
It is no surprise that, with a family tree rooted in football, Tayler Higgins would become a setter. She understands play-calling, reading the defense and how everything hinges on that center snap connection to the quarterback. Nothing is lost in translation when applying that mentality to volleyball. Higgins will do just that on Friday when No. 17 Hawaii opens its season with Ohio in the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational.
After playing in all 30 matches last season behind senior Mita Uiato, the sophomore is ready to run the show. The Gatorade Hawaii Player of the Year as a junior at Punahou will not be alone when she makes her first career start; Hawaii's projected lineup has just two veteran returnees -- senior middle Kalei Adolpho and junior hitter Tai Manu-Olevao.
There will be growing pains -- to be expected with four starters among the eight losses -- but Higgins isn't expecting to be blindsided. This edition of the Wahine might be raw, but it is raw talent that will develop together during coach Dave Shoji's 40th season.
"Will we surprise people? I'm not concerned about that right now," Higgins said. "What I'm concerned about is how we perform every day rather than the outside looking in.
"Last year's team was one of the greatest I've ever played on. We learned so much from the seniors and we followed their lead. I think it took a while for us to realize that this is our team now. We're still figuring out who we are and how we're going to create our own team dynamics."
No two setters are alike and, while Higgins aspires to follow in the signature handprints previous greats have left on the program, there's already a noticeable difference from last season. She is more vocal than Uiato.
"Tayler has a high energy," Wahine coach Dave Shoji said. "She seems always upbeat, communicates well with the hitters, very much a team player."
"I think she's grown from last season," said assistant coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, one of Hawaii's all-time great setters. "She's got to keep working on her skills but I like her energy and how she runs the court."
Higgins has a field prescence not unlike one of her favorite players -- Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. But it might have more to do with growing up in a household full of football-playing brothers: Cameron, a third-team All-America quarterback at Weber State and current football coach at Kaiser High; Zach, who played defensive back and safety at Utah State; Jeremy, a quarterback for Hawaii; and younger brother Parker, a linebacker at Kaiser.
"It is not surprising that she is a setter," said her father, Jim, who played linebacker, defensive end and center for Hawaii under Dick Tomey in the 1980s. "She's always in the mix with her brothers.
"When they're talking strategies and play-calling, she's right in there with them. All that readily applies to the mentality for a setter."
TAYLER HIGGINS 2013 STATISTICS
TAYLER HIGGINS 2013 STATISTICS
"Someone who is in charge of the defense," said Higgins, whose relatives include San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o. "My family is such a big football family. We spend a lot of time talking about it, watching game films.
"Actually, if I wasn't playing volleyball, I'd probably be on the coaching staff at Kaiser right now."
Instead she'll be on the court where she served as a floor-wiper and ball girl for Wahine matches. And where, she said, she discovered a love for the sport during a summer camp.
"I was probably 8 and [former UH setter] Cayley Thurlby was one of my coaches," Higgins said. "She was so nice and sweet and an awesome coach. She made it fun for me and made me want to keep playing.
"Personally, I want to uphold the legacy of what being a setter here is, it's something for me to work toward. With so many new players, the connection with my hitters wasn't pretty those first few days of camp. We are getting better together."
It means finding connections off the court as well. She, Adolpho and Manu-Olevao share a religious faith (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). With middle blocker Olivia Magill, a junior transfer from Arizona, it's the book series Game of Thrones. And her friendship with sophomore hitter Nikki Taylor -- out this weekend with an elbow injury -- dates back to Niu Valley Middle School.
And then, there's the connection with the Hawaii volleyball tradition.
"I always thought I was going away to college," she said. "That was my mind-set. But you'll never get to play in another place like this, with the great coaching and the great fans.
"I couldn't say no. I had to come here."