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Q&A: Pani Napoleon

By Tiff Wells.

Fans of a school see the athletes perform on game night, and that’s about it. They read up about them in articles, watch videos on social media or peruse the player bios on the schools’ websites. But how do we really get to know about these players? By having them answer our questions first-hand, of course! With college sports underway, just how are UH athletes getting ready? What are they thinking? What do they like? In this Q&A, we hit the beach with Rainbow Wahine beach volleyball standout Pani Napoleon.

Q: You were named Athlete of the Year at Bonita Vista High in the spring of 2017 and were also inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. How tough was it to redshirt the 2018 season at UH, but also how did it help prepare you when you started competing in the 2019 season?

I went into my freshman year already wanting to redshirt from the start. I felt like I needed more experience before I stepped foot into such an experienced program. It was my first time devoting myself to only one sport due to playing many in high school. I only felt as if this was the best decision for me so I could apply way more focus into my game. In doing so, this decision helped me become way more confident and stronger mentally going into the 2019 season. I was more ready than ever.

Q: What does it mean to you to wear a Hawai‘i jersey?

I’ve always visited Hawaii especially because I have family here, so when moving here it was like a second home. Being able to wear a jersey for UH, this meant I was representing not only my school, team and coaches, but also for my family, myself and hopefully other aspiring athletes. Wearing this jersey allows me to feel what it truly means to be a Division I athlete for one of the best programs in the nation, and I think that no one should take it for granted!

Q: That redshirt freshman season was something special for you. 2019: Big West Freshman of the Year, All-Big West second-team, AVCA Top Flight Award with the best win percentage among No. 3 pairs with 20 or more matches together (teammates with Morgan Martin), a school record with 40 straight sets won, third longest match win streak in school history (20). Did you expect 2019 to go that way? How did you remain focused in preparations for 2020?

Having to sit out my freshman year, it made me very excited to play with my team. I tried to focus on one thing at a time and not get ahead of myself. I would make goals for myself such as making the lineup, then after making the lineup I would ask myself what can I do to move up in flights or better my play in the flight that I am currently on. Never would I have thought that I was going to play with Morgan Martin who was an All-American, Big West Freshman of the Year, and an overall a well-rounded athlete. I was extremely nervous, but knew that if I just play the game to the best of my ability, I could leave the court with my head held high because I knew I gave it my best effort. After the 2019 season, I couldn’t see it go any other way.

Q: Take us through that fateful week in March. The team is 7-2, ranked fourth in the nation when you folks land in Florida ahead of the Stetson Beach Blast. You then find out that the tournament and ultimately the rest of the season was cancelled. What was that period like for you and the team?

When landing in Florida, It was a total of 14 hours of traveling so when finding out the news, we could not believe it. We were in complete shock and didn’t even know how to comprehend what was happening in the moment. When we got settled in the hotel, we all were notified that our season was officially over due to COVID-19 and had to catch the next flight back to Hawaii the next morning at 5:00 a.m. Our whole team decided to have a team meeting in my hotel room so we could all grieve together and talk about what a hell of a season we could’ve had if it was to continue. It was an experience that I never thought I was going to face and it definitely made me grateful to have had a supportive team (all staff and teammates) and know what a privilege it is to be a Division I athlete for the University of Hawaii.

Q: 2020 has been a different kind of year. When facilities were closed, how did you stay in volleyball shape and how did you stay mentally focused?

I tried to make myself stick to a schedule every day. Something that would be similar to my schedule as if things resumed back to normal. I would wake up at 7:00 a.m., walk or run two or three miles, eat breakfast, work on homework, relax, do an at home workout, have dinner then sleep. I would try and stick to this schedule every day and I have to admit that it was very difficult to stay mentally strong and stick to a schedule without having volleyball included in my day. However, having my roommate and keeping in touch with my family and friends definitely made things more bearable.

Q: What does it mean to you being part of the No. 1 pair?

In beach volleyball there are five flights of pairs and for duals we need at least three flights to win out of the five. With that being said, the number one flight (usually known to be the highest level flight) was an honor and felt like I worked hard enough to deserve a spot to play at the highest level. But when I comes down to it every flight is worth just as much. In other words, the one and two flights could lose but the third, fourth, and fifth could win making them just as important. Then again, being the number one pair for UH meant that I earned an opportunity to play at the highest level at one of the best programs in the nation and that alone is an experience that I have dreamed about since I was a kid. Every day there is room to make an improvement on my game and playing at the number one flight only helped me to become a better player than what I was before.

Q: Beach volleyball is unique in that it’s five pairs competing on multiple courts at the same time. Is it hard competing when sometimes there is no coach present?

Prior to coming to UH, tournaments on the mainland for me didn’t really consist of having a coach. When finally coming to UH, I thought it was great experiencing coaching during games but when it came to a point of not having one, I was still prepared and knew what I had to do to get the job done.

Q: Take us through that February 22nd 3-2 duel win against No. 3 LSU, where you and teammate Morgan Martin won your match 22-20, 21-12 to give UH the 2-1 lead in the dual. What is it like finishing your match and then racing over to another court to watch your teammates finish up?

One of my favorite things to do when I’m not playing is cheering for my teammates. I have the most fun cheering and trying to support my teammates to the best of my ability because I know how hard beach volleyball can be mentally and physically. With good sportsmanship I like to try and get my other teammates to do certain cheers to get everyone just as hyped up as me.

Q: Just how grueling is it to play multiple dual matches in a day? How do you stay in great condition and how do you recover from a weekend tournament?

It can be very grueling being in the sun six to eight hours for two or three days straight. Certain things that are athletic trainers tell us to do is to make sure we hydrate before and during our tournaments, making sure we have had a good meal before and during, staying shaded as much as possible when we’re notplaying, keeping our legs elevated, making sure we’re staying cool and just trying not to do anything too strenuous when not playing. Things we do to recover are ice baths, rolling out, stretching, or getting treatment.

Q: In your family, who is the best cook? And when you go home, what are a couple of the dishes you request your parents Edward and Catherine to make?

I would like to say with that my mother is the best cook of the family. However, when my dad decided to cook, I sometimes question why he doesn’t cook more often! One of my favorite dishes that my mom cooks for me is albondigas soup and I always ask my dad to make me soldiers toast.

Q: All UH teams log a ton of airline miles every season. What are the must have items in your carry-on bag when you board the plane? When on the road, do you have a go-to spot for a meal?

Must haves that I need to have on my carry-on bag are: my headphones, snacks, computer, notebook and chargers. When on the road my go-to spot for a meal would have to be Trader Joe’s and Chick-fil-A.

Q: Finally, take us through a typical tournament weekend, both here at home and on the road.

A typical tournament weekend in Hawaii, we are given an itinerary for the two or three days that we play. In the itinerary it gives us our schedule each hour for every day. Every tournament that we have in Hawaii is hosted at Queens Beach. Since we host the tournament we usually don’t have to play super early but end up ending a little later than usual. We have our great supportive system by our athletic trainers and boosters who provide us with food and drinks all day. We have a team meeting right before we get started for the day and after every game that we play. Our day of play is usually around six to eight hours in the sun. In between sets, we have to scout other teams to know what we’re up against. We warm up before every game at least 30 minutes before and when the day ends we have to head to the locker room to shower and ice bath. When traveling to other states for tournaments it’s very similar to our at home games. We always have an itinerary each hour of every day. This includes the time we need to wake up, when we need to eat breakfast, when we should leave our hotel, when we should start warming up when getting to the beach, and making sure that we have all of our materials (uniform, visors, glasses, water bottles and other essentials that you would need for the beach), what time we should eat lunch and dinner, and what time we should be in bed.

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