How an undersized hitter from Hawaii became WSU volleyball’s biggest early-season surprise

Sina Uluave, a freshman outside hitter from Hawaii, was a late addition to the Wichita State volleyball team, but has already made an impact for the Shockers. WSU hosts No. 13 BYU at 7 p.m. Thursday at Koch Arena. STEVE ADELSON COURTESY

One of the season’s early revelations for the Wichita State volleyball team has been freshman outside hitter Sina Uluave, who is second on the team in kills and third in digs during WSU’s 3-3 start.

But it wasn’t too long ago when Uluave had resigned to not playing Division I volleyball this season.

She signed with Rider in December, but was released from her letter of intent in March when the coaching staff left. Uluave, who is 5-foot-11, quickly found that March was too late in the recruiting period to sell coaches on an undersized pin hitter.

“It was something I got told very often. It was actually kind of heartbreaking,” Uluave said. “I was really worried. I had swallowed the pill thinking I was going to have to go D2 and then transfer out. For me to be (at WSU) and getting playing time, it’s kind of unreal but it’s something I don’t take for granted and want to keep working on.”

So how did WSU coach Chris Lamb stumble upon an overlooked recruit from Honululu, Hawaii so late in recruiting? Once again, it was from Lamb’s connections in the volleyball world.

Uluave had made an impression on Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, who recruited her club teammate, Jhenna Gabriel, to be his setter last year. When Uluave’s club coach at Rainbow Volleyball Club reached out to Elliott and asked if he could put Uluave on the radar for his network of coaches, Elliott had Lamb in mind.

While other coaches discounted Uluave due to her height, Lamb watched the film and saw an immediate contributor as a six-rotation player.

“She has volleyball IQ, a large skill set, she’s powerful, competitive and she’s good on both pins,” Lamb said. “She’s a good digger and a good passer and I think eventually she’ll be great at both. She has it all, really.”

In Hawaii, there is rarely specialization for volleyball players. They are all taught how to hit, dig, pass, block and set in pursuit of molding better all-around players to offset generally being shorter than their outside competition.

Not only has that improved Uluave’s all-around game, but she also inherited some of the vertical leaping ability from her mother, Caroline, who won a NAIA national title with BYU-Hawaii and coached Sina (full name Sinalauli’i) throughout middle school and high school.

“I’ve always had to learn how to play big, so I could get above those other girls or at least up there with them,” Uluave said. “A lot of it is genetics. I’ve seen pictures of my mom (who is 5-7) and she’s up there. She always tells me hers was 10 inches higher than mine.”

Uluave’s explosion and feel for the game has already made her a key hitter in WSU’s lineup. She’s either second or third on the team in kills (53, 2.2 per set), digs (55, 2.3 per set) and serve-receive (96%).

In WSU’s last two games, Uluave has registered back-to-back double-doubles against Cal Poly (14 kills, 12 digs) and North Texas (14 kills, 15 digs).

“When you have someone who is really quick like Sina who can also jump like she can, it makes it really easy,” WSU setter McKayla Wuensch said. “You just have to make sure the set is fast and up there and she’ll go get it.”

Uluave will be put to the test, along with WSU, starting Thursday when the Shocker Volleyball Classic kicks off with WSU taking on No. 13 BYU at 7 p.m. at Koch Arena. WSU also plays VCU (7 p.m. Friday) and No. 3 Texas (7 p.m. Saturday) with tickets starting at $8.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Lamb can already envision big things for Uluave in the coming years.

“I think she’s a born leader,” Lamb said. “Everything you hear about her from her former teammates and her coaches. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later that she’ll be as demanding here as she was in Hawaii. I really think she can be an alpha for us.”

How an undersized hitter from Hawaii became WSU volleyball’s biggest early-season surprise