No time for tears; volleyball trio says moving to Hawaii will elevate their game

Jameson Huang, Staff Writer

“Come back, Justin.” The voice on the other side of the phone was senior Justin Todd’s mother. It had already been five months, but his mother still wanted him to move from Hawaii back home to Texas. 

Justin Todd (Na Hoku Staff)

Todd is one of three seniors at Moanalua High School who moved to Hawaii within the past year in order to pursue their volleyball careers. They may be three of the new students on campus, but it’s easy to spot them: the shortest of the trio is 6’3.” Kai Rodriguez, Zachary Yewchuk, and Todd have all committed to play for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the two-time defending NCAA champions. 

In the hopes of furthering their prospects in college, they sacrificed their senior year in their hometowns and moved to Hawaii, Todd, even against his mother’s wishes. Their journey eventually led them to Moanalua High School, where they are spending their senior season on the varsity boys team. 

Zachary Yewchuk (Calista Ancog)

Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Yewchuk, a 6’8” opposite hitter, tried every sport imaginable: swimming, basketball, cross country, and even track. 

“None of them really fit,” he said — until he found his passion for volleyball. 

Rodriguez’s start was similar. He grew up in the small town of Gilroy in Northern California. He was a multi-sport athlete growing up, playing soccer, basketball, and flag football. What really stood out for him, however, was that his dad coached a girl’s volleyball club team at the time. He would hang out with them on most of his off-time away from school. As he started getting bigger and stronger, volleyball became increasingly more fun to him. He eventually joined his first beach volleyball tournament at eight years old. 

Todd’s dad also had experience in the sport, playing beach volleyball in his twenties. Todd grew up playing baseball in Houston but he didn’t like it that much, describing it as “too slow.” 

“I like volleyball because it’s so much faster, all that action,” he said. 

Kai Rodriguez (Calista Ancog)

All three of the players continued training on their own, becoming accomplished players in their own respect. In fact, Rodriguez, a 6’3” outside hitter, was a part of the team that won a junior national championship in Orlando, Florida, where he was named tournament Most Valuable Player. 

It was at another national tournament in Las Vegas where Rodriguez said he first spoke to UH Men’s Volleyball Head Coach Charlie Wade, who approached his dad to ask if his son was interested in playing volleyball in Hawaii.

Rodriguez said he and his family had a tough decision to make: stay with the familiar comforts of home or challenge himself in a new environment with a new level of volleyball. He said he was comforted when his father said, “‘You make the decision, and I’ll go with it.’” 

The decision happened in a flurry. In the span of three weeks, the family decided that he would move to Hawaii by himself and live with his aunt in order to play on Coach Wade’s club team. The experience would better prepare him for the transition into college volleyball. 

While Rodriguez said he was excited to work with high-level talent in the islands, it was also hard leaving his family behind. 

“It was tough,” he admitted. “In a way it was fun because it was like that spontaneous adrenaline, ‘I’m moving to Hawaii! I vacationed here my whole life. It’s gonna be awesome. I know so many people.’ But it was tough leaving my dad and most of my family at home and coming here on my own.”

It was at the same tournament in Las Vegas where Todd was also spotted by Wade. This opportunity came at the right time for Todd too, as this national tournament was his last chance to show his skills to college recruiters. Being the main outside hitter on his team, the 6’8” Todd made sure to capitalize. 

He said that the opportunity to play in Hawaii and at the university, however, came out of nowhere, as he was planning on going to a smaller school that was offering him a generous scholarship. 

Convincing his family was tough, however, and his mom was not on board with him moving. She said that there was a lot of risk involved and was concerned that he wouldn’t even be playing on the team, he said. She was worried that they would send him to Hawaii and that he might not ever see the court. His dad wasn’t fully convinced either but was more accepting.

“My dad, he didn’t want me to move either, but he wants me to pursue volleyball with all I have, and I want to do that too,” Todd said. “I kind of made my own decision. The whole time I knew I was going to move to Hawaii and she was just saying, ‘No, you’re not going to.’” He said that even though he loves his mother, he knew that his move to Hawaii would benefit him and his career. He calls her every week.

For Yewchuk, his journey to Hawaii came by fluke. While vacationing in Hawaii with his family, he met Coach Wade’s son at a volleyball practice. One thing led to another and eventually, he and Coach Wade started talking. Upon returning to Canada, he received a call from Wade asking if he would consider playing in America. 

Calista Ancog

With the opportunity to move to Hawaii to work with a collegiate-caliber club laying on the table, Yewchuk and his family made the decision that it would be best for the entire family to relocate. 

“If we didn’t take this opportunity that was laid out for me, we’d always be wondering, ‘what would have happened if we went with it?’ So, we couldn’t really say no. We just had to find a way to make it work, “ he said. 

Yewchuck, his parents, and sisters packed up for Honolulu, where they had to adjust to a whole new life. They had to find new jobs, adjust to a new school, and be surrounded by all new people. 

Finding a new school was riddled with obstacles. Yewchuk’s mom worked at Damien Memorial High School, which he attended briefly.  He decided to transfer to Moanalua this year for its academics and because of his desire to hone his French language skills. 

Rodriguez also initially faced problems, wanting to attend Kamehameha Kapalama and Punahou, until he eventually​​ chose Moanalua after hearing about its volleyball program. 

Both Rodriguez and Yewchuk were enrolled in Moanalua earlier this school year, and Todd registered later after completing several online courses. 

“I was doing online school at the time in Hawaii just training with the club, and once I figured out we weren’t gonna have club training when school started, I was like, ‘maybe I should go to school,’”  said. “I was happy sitting at home but I also kinda missed school and being able to talk to people and teachers and stuff and learning from actual people.”

All three say that they have ambitious goals for this season. One of Rodriguez’s goals is to help Moanalua win a state championship title.  He also wants to become a more physical player by getting stronger and jumping higher. Yewchuk’s goals are to become a more well-rounded player. And one of Todd’s goals is to get better at diving for balls. 

“If you can’t get a ball up, you can’t kill a ball,” he said.

Defense is an aspect of their game that all three have said they want to improve on. Coming from places where the players are much bigger, they have said that Hawaiian-style volleyball is much more focused on defense in comparison to other places.

Calista Ancog

“In California, where I’m from, volleyball is a big-person sport. You gotta be tall and hit hard,” Rodriguez said. “Here, it’s a small-person sport where you have to be really controlled with the ball and use blocks, use the other team to your advantage, almost. And so coming from that, it was different because I would hit balls [in Hawaii] and people would dig them like it’s nothing. And I really had to start thinking about [my playing strategy] differently,” he said.

This was also echoed by Yewchuk and Todd, who said that while the hitting and offense were stronger where they came from, the defense in Hawaii was on another level. By practicing with these different styles of volleyball, they hope that it will better round out their overall game.

In addition to transitioning to a different style of volleyball, they also had to adapt to living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

“It was very different coming from California where I’m traveling up and down the coast. We get all types of cultures and ethnic backgrounds [versus] coming here where everyone’s similar and like-minded,” said Rodriguez. “It’s very community-based here [unlike] the mainland [which is] like fend for yourself. So it was nice coming here and being so welcomed and treated as family right when I got here,” he said. 

Since moving here, they have embraced their opportunities to explore their new home. 

“I’ve tried to get a lot more into fishing. There’s fly fishing in Canada, [and I’m] trying to do a little bit of that over here. I want to try spearfishing, that looks like a lot of fun. I [also] carve Hawaiian hook necklaces,” Yewchuk. 

They’re also trying lots of new food in Hawaii. 

“I’ve been really into trying new kinds of seafood. I wasn’t a big fan of seafood when I first got here, like fish, crab, and shrimp and all that. Still not a big fan of shrimp. But crab and fish I’m starting to get a lot more into,” Rodriguez said. 

When asked what their plans were for the future, they were identical in their answer in wanting to play professional volleyball. Yewchuk wants to play professionally for his home country, Canada. However, he also has a passion for science. 

Signing Day–it’s official!  Left to right: Yewchuk, Rodriguez, and Todd committed to the University of Hawaii at Manoa at the Nov. 9 event at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center. (Photo courtesy Zachary Yewchuk)

“I love sports, too but I know that one day my ability to play sports will kind of lessen. So I actually really love science. Right now I’m going to study marine biology…I love the ocean, I love being around the ocean [and] I really want to do something cool in science,” he said.

Outside of playing volleyball, Yewchuk enjoys fishing, skateboarding, and he’s trying to surf more. He also does a lot of work on carving. One of the things he’s going to try is to carve a marlin gill.

Todd also enjoys going out a lot and doing activities. 

“I try to go out as much as possible because if I don’t, I feel like I’m wasting my time,” he said. He likes hanging out with his friends, playing video games, and calling his parents. He goes to the beach very often, in fact, he goes to Sandy’s almost every day. 

This was in contrast to Rodriguez, who outside of volleyball, just enjoys relaxing at home. 

“I’m very much a homebody. If I’m not doing volleyball, I’m just chilling at home, watching TV and not doing much. And that’s always been a tough question for me…because volleyball is my fun. I love doing volleyball and that’s where I find my joy,” he said.

Their passion for volleyball guided the trio on a path that eventually led them all to Hawaii. Despite the challenges of the transition, the pursuit of excellence was worth their leaving home for.