Girls Volleyball
Williams caps off decorated volleyball career with Pilots

There was a time when Carey Williams wanted so badly to be back home that she was willing to walk away from collegiate volleyball.

It's safe to say now, however, that she's glad she stuck it out.

Williams, a 2017 graduate of Kahuku, recently completed a decorated four-year playing career at the University of Portland. The 5-foot-7 libero has been prolific to say the least; her 1,737 career digs ranks second all-time in Pilots' history.

But it almost never happened if not for the support of her mother, Lana, who helped her through that first semester of college.

"It was kind of hard for me because it was my first time being far away from my family and so I got really homesick," Williams recalled. "I was telling my mom that I wanted to come back home, but she told me that was I in the right place and that I could do it."

A mother's touch, as it so often does, did the trick and Williams remained in Portland. She played in 113 of 114 sets as a freshman and helped the Pilots go 15-15 that year, while averaging 3.04 digs per set.

"Her just giving me support was a lot and that made me feel better and it made me motivated to do good and play for my family because they're always there," Williams expressed.

Williams ranked third on the team in digs that season with 348, including a season-high of 27 in a win over Wyoming. But her brightest moment as a Pilot came that following year, when she recorded a match-high 28 digs in a five-set win over the University of Hawaii at the Stan Sheriff Center.

"That night we played the Wahine I was a little nervous because there were so many people there and I was playing against my hometown team, but it was such an exciting game," said Williams, who had not previously played in the Sheriff Center (the final day of the state tournament in each of her two varsity seasons at Kahuku were held at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center).

"It was very special to me because I got to have all of my family that was on the island there to watch me and support me," she added.

Not only did the Pilots beat UH that night — before a crowd of nearly 6,000 fans — they swept both San Diego State and Idaho that weekend to win the four-team Outrigger Volleyball Challenge. In fact, it was just the third of four consecutive non-conference tournaments that they won that year en route to a program-best 12-0 start.

Portland went on to finish 20-13 in 2018 and reached the quarterfinals (third round) of the National Invitational Championship. Williams appeared in all 124 sets that season and led the West Coast Conference in digs with 534. She averaged 4.31 digs per set and was also second on the team in assists (115) and service aces (31).

Williams once again led the WCC in digs (523) as a junior in 2019, when she appeared in all 107 sets. She was also tops in digs per set (4.89) and recorded a career-high 32 digs in a five-set win over Utah State. But the Pilots struggled to an 11-18 record that year and abruptly parted ways with coach Jeff Baxter a few weeks before the end of the season.

Two assistants were tabbed as interim co-coaches to finish out the year and one of them — former Iolani and St. Mary's (Moraga, California) standout Megan Burton — was elevated to head coach in January of 2020.

In Burton's first full season as a head coach — which was pushed back from the fall to this spring due to the pandemic — Portland endured major growing pains.

The Pilots, who were picked to finish last out of 10 teams in the WCC preseason coaches' poll, dropped their first six matches and nine of their first 10. They closed out the season last weekend with their fifth and sixth straight defeat to end the year with a 2-14 mark.

"It was hard this season because of COVID and we had so much testing — I think we would test four times a week — and then we would quarantine when we came back from trips. It was just a lot to adjust to, but it felt good to finally get back on the court since our season was canceled last (fall)," Williams said.

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The team was also without the services of senior outside hitter Kassidy Naone, a 2017 Le Jardin graduate from Kailua, who opted out for this year prior to the season.

"It was tough. I mean, throughout the years me and Kassidy became best friends and not having her there was kind of hard," Williams said. The pair started their collegiate careers together, after all.

But adjusting to the demands of Burton, a 2006 Iolani School alumnae, haven't been as difficult, Williams said.

"I would say that it was easy for me to adjust to Megan being the head coach because I just played the game that I know how to play and her coaching style wasn't any different," she explained.

There's also the fact that Burton represented the third different coach that Williams has played under while at Portland. The coach who signed her, Brent Crouch, departed for USC after her freshman season, which led to Baxter being elevated from assistant to head coach.

Williams has learned to roll with the punches.

"I kind of adjusted to that because in high school I had different coaches too, so it was kind of easier to adjust in college with having more coaches," said Williams, who played under Lee Lamb as a high school sophomore and Mounia Tachibana in her final two years of prep ball.

Perhaps the toughest part of the latest coaching change for Williams was being forced out of her comfort zone.

"I'm kind of a quiet person, but this season my coaches wanted me to be the leader on and off the court and always be checking in on my teammates, making sure they're okay and just always motivating them to get better," she said. "It was hard because I wasn't used to being like that; it was out of my comfort zone to really reach out."

As a high school player, Williams was a force at outside hitter and earned first team All-OIA East honors as a senior, when she helped the Red Raiders capture their first league championship in four years and place third at the state tournament. Williams earned All-Hawaii Second Team recognition that year, but signed with Portland as a back-row player.

It was a natural transition for her.

"When I first started out playing volleyball I was the libero, but then I grew to playing outside, but I don't think there was a difference because I was a six-rotation outside hitter so I played all the way around so it was kind of easy for me to adjust to just playing back row," Williams said.

Although, she admits the urge to go up and spike a ball every so often is still there.

"I do," she laughed. "I miss it here and there."

Someone who can certainly relate to that urge is Pilots assistant Aven Lee, a 1996 graduate of Kamehameha-Kapalama who went on to play both outside hitter and defensive specialist during her career as a Rainbow Wahine. Lee spent two seasons as head girls coach at Kalani High School before going on to coaching stints at Hawaii Pacific, University of the Pacific, Nevada-Reno and Sacramento State. The spring 2021 season was Lee's first at Portland.

"At first when I met her she was kind of quiet, so I was thinking she was probably quiet, but then when I got to know her more her true personality came out, which was good," Williams laughed. "She really helped our back row and improved our defense; it was great. She has a very good personality and is just so fun to be around."

As a pair of local products, both Lee and Williams take to heart the importance of defense — which has become quite the distinguishing trademark of so many players out of Hawaii over the years.

"Our coaches back in Hawaii teach us grit and that you go for everything and that ball never touches the floor and that's always the goal every practice in club, so I think that's probably why college coaches really appreciate Hawaii defense," Williams explained.

It's likely a big part of the reason why Williams earned a spot on the U.S. Collegiate National Team in March of last year. She was among 28 players from across the country selected to the team out of a pool of 204 athletes who took part in a three-day tryout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the team's events were cancelled.

Still, it was a feather in the cap of Williams, to be sure, and if not for a truncated senior season, she would likely depart as Portland's all-time leader in digs (she is 33 digs behind the record holder, Ann Pinkowski, who achieved the feat in 445 sets played from 1989-'92; Williams has played 40 fewer sets in her career).

"I honestly wasn't keeping track of that but I just gave it my all," said Williams, who had the option to return for another season next year, but instead opted to move on from her volleyball-playing days.

Williams, who will graduate next month with a degree in general studies in biology and fine arts, plans on attending Hawaii Medical College next and enrolling in the pharmacist tech course.

It hasn't quite hit her yet that competitive volleyball is behind her.

"But I feel like it's gonna hit me soon," said Williams, who returned to Hawaii from Portland on Thursday.

"All my classes are virtual and graduation is virtual, too, so I decided to come home. It's nice to be home and to be with my family," she added.

Williams, who averaged 4.29 digs per set for her Pilots' career, said that she came to terms with her decision toward the end of this season.

"I think playing volleyball all my life since I was in the third grade and just relying on volleyball and I thought it was time to start a new chapter in my life because I know that I'm not going to play volleyball for the rest of my life," she explained. "My body was kind of feeling it, too, but yeah, I was ready for a new chapter in my life. I made the decision on my own and then I talked to my parents about it."

There are no regrets for Williams, who looks back on her time at the University of Portland fondly.

"I would say academically I grew a lot and it helped me realize that procrastination and time management is so important in life. College is way harder than high school so my freshman year was kind of rough to adjust to that college life, but as college went on it made me grow," she said.

Williams is also appreciative of her time as student-athlete at Kahuku, where she lettered three times in volleyball and twice in basketball.

"I would say it was a lot of hard work," she laughed. "My coaches in high school were way harder than my college coaches. I was in way better shape in high school, but it also helped me with my mental game and improved my mental toughness."

While she was keen to express gratitude for those who have helped her along the way — "all my family, my friends, all the coaches throughout my volleyball career" — there is one supporter who Williams points to who carried the most influence on her over the years.

"I think the most influential person has to be my grandpa," Williams said of the late Pele Marasco, who passed away last April at the age of 69.  

"He passed away from cancer, so it was kind of hard losing him because he had such an important role in my life," she said. "He was a big supporter of mine. He was always there for me, cheering me on."

Surely, Pele Marasco is happy that his granddaughter stuck it out, too.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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