Rangers looking to make strides on volleyball court

Kaelea Makaiwa -
Kaelea Makaiwa
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First-year coach Kaelea Makaiwa was caught off guard when former Olympic College volleyball and softball coach Clay Blackwood announced this summer he’d accepted a position at Evergreen State College in Olympia.

“It’s been a challenge,” Makaiwa, an assistant under Blackwood, said. “I’ve been coaching with him for seven-plus years. It’s odd not having him there.”

But with eight games of the 2007 volleyball season under her belt, the North Kitsap teacher and Bremerton resident is confident her Rangers can pick up the pace despite a slow start.

Of course, having a core of leadership and experience back certainly helps.

“That makes it a heck of a lot easier,” she said.

OC returns three players from last year’s 15-28 season, poised to break into the Northwest Athletic Association of Community College’s North Division top-four after a 5-7 division finish left the Ranger a game outside.

Sophomore Renne Blankenship (Morton), the team’s libero, is back to help anchor the defense.

“She’s outstanding,” Makaiwa said. “We were impressed with her last year as a freshman. She’s just amazing. She only knows how to go one speed and that’s hard.”

She returns along side fellow sophomores Tori Lynn (South Bend) and North Division All-Star Caitlin Swift (Liberty HS; Seattle), who switches from setter.

“Last year she set for us,” Makaiwa said. “This year she’s in the totally opposite role. She’s really clicked with her footwork. She’s a quick learner and a hard worker.”

On Lynn, Makaiwa said while she’ll be at multiple positions again this year, the middle is where she’ll most often find herself.

“She’s kind of doing double duty again,” Makaiwa said. “But she’ll probably be more of a middle blocker for us. She has the experience there. We need to have her there.”

But more than any of their individual skill sets, it’s their combined leadership that has the first-year coach happy.

“It’s good to have them for their leadership,” she said. “They lead by their hard work, by example.”

In addition to getting back to the NWAACC tournament (one of the team’s goals when Blackwood and Makaiwa started), which the team accomplished, and finishing as a top-three team in the NWAACC, Makaiwa said a more basic goal is starting to come to fruition.

“And just making a name for OC volleyball,” she said. “We were off the radar for a little while. Not anymore.”

The Rangers have been slow to start in 2007, falling to 0-8 after a close 3-1 loss to Chemeketa and a 3-0 loss to Pierce Wednesday at the Bremer Student Center.

But that’s certainly not for a lack of effort.

In the loss to Chemeketa, the Rangers opened with a 30-22 game one loss before rebounding with a hard-earned 32-30 win against the three-time NWAACC champs. And while they fell 30-25 and 30-12 in the last two, the Rangers flashed the potential to hold their own against the NWAACC’s top tier.

Most of the losses came at the Chemeketa Invitational Tournament in Salem, Ore., where they got to battle NWAACC big dogs Walla Walla (the 2005 champs), Clackamas, Treasure Valley and the hosts once again.

“That new group, they’re not skipping a beat,” Makaiwa said. “We’ve got to keep going when the chips are down, and right now, we’re 0-8. The chips are down.”

But the tournament has already paid off in the tight scores in reflected in Wednesday’s losses.

“Totally. The scores were better,” she said. “The fact we were in it two of the four and won one of the four is even better.”

The biggest challenge for Makaiwa has been getting the team to stay positive despite the opening skid.

“At the tournament, I said to ’em, ‘I’m worried about the heart pulse of this team,’” she said. “I looked at ’em and said, ‘I’ve been where you’re at. But remember what our goals are. This is the preseason. This is preparation for where we want to be.’”

With a slew of new freshmen, the Rangers have new talent across the court.

“She’s got beautiful hands,” Makaiwa said of new setter Amber Lyons (Anchorage, Alaska). “And she gets to every ball.”

Locally, the Rangers added one Kitsap-grown recruit in former Olympic Trojan Brittni Featherstone, who helped Oly advance to the 3A state tournament last fall.

“She’s actually kind of my utility player right now,” Makaiwa said. “She’s played all three spots. But she’s just deadly from back there. She’s talented from any side we put her on.”

Liz Davis (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) will be another key newcomer, manning the outside primarily, but Makaiwa said she has versatility as well.

So far, Makaiwa said the team has meshed perfectly.

“But what’s outstanding about this team, they have great chemistry,” she said. “They do not quit. They keep fighting.”

And that’s the attitude they’ll have to maintain to hang with their North Division rivals this year. Whatcom, Bellevue, Skagit Valley and Edmonds are all expected to be among the division’s frontrunners.

“Our North Division is going to be tough,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t think there’ll be an easy game. We’ll need every win we can get.”

As for the game on the floor, Makaiwa said the team will be fun to watch regardless.

“This is an exciting group to watch,” she said. “If you’re a volleyball fan, Ranger fan or not, come out and watch. It’s different. It’s exciting.”

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