Being a college athlete was important in their family long before Emi and Hina Pua’a followed the same winding path to join Arizona volleyball.
Both prepped at Honolulu’s Punahou School before a stop at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa. From the Midwest, it was on to Tucson. Whether it’s nature or nurture, the drive to be a college athlete runs in the family.
“We started with soccer, and then we eventually got into basketball,” Emi said. “Volleyball is one of the last sports we picked up, but our mom played volleyball for (the University of San Diego) and basketball. She was a dual-sport college athlete, so we were always pressed to play a sport in college and to get our education.”
They also had ties specifically to Arizona.
“Our grandpa played baseball here,” Emi said. “And we know Kalei Mau, who graduated, and Penina (Snuka). They just told us great things about Dave (Rubio). So, we came, we visited and we loved the program, so we came here.”
Both Emi and Hina are used to succeeding on the court and being in the middle of the action. They followed in their mother’s footsteps at Punahou School where both were three-year letterwinners.
In 2014, when Emi was a high school junior and Hina a sophomore, the team won the Hawai’i state title. The next season, it was state runners-up. Then, it was time to separate.
Emi was the first to make the trek thousands of miles to Council Bluffs, Iowa where she joined the Reivers for the 2016 season. The next season, Hina would join her.
“It was definitely a culture change going to Iowa,” Hina said. “Coming back to Arizona, it’s a lot more like home just with the weather and the people. But we’ve had to adapt from going to Iowa, coming to Arizona, especially being far away from home.”
What didn’t change was on-court success. Iowa Western finished as NJCAA runners-up Emi’s freshman year while Hina was back in Hawai’i finishing third in the state with Punahou School.
The next season, they would be together again in Iowa. The second-seeded Reivers were upset in the NJCAA tournament, finishing seventh in the country, and it was time to say goodbye again. With Emi in Tucson, Hina’s squad finished third in the country and the younger sister was named a NJCAA All-American.
When Rubio decided to bring Hina to Arizona, he knew he had a good player on the court. Just as importantly, he knew he had someone with the lineage to succeed.
“We felt so good about Emi, and we just figured the DNA was similar,” Rubio said. “And even though they’re dramatically different in terms of personality, they really come from the same genetic pool—really hard working kids, terrific young ladies. Hina is blossoming into a really good setter. In running the offense, I kind of feel bad for her because the offense is so much more complicated now than it was before she came. But she handles it really well. She’s the kind of kid that’s very internal with her frustrations, but her frustration never overwhelms her and overcomes her general personality on the floor, which for a setter is really important.”
Perhaps as important as any volleyball skill is the ability to adapt. The sisters showed they could do that as they moved around the country pursuing their volleyball careers. They had to adapt on the court, as well. Emi told Hina that she could expect things to be very different once she got to Arizona.
“I said, ‘If you want to get better, you should come to Arizona,’” Emi recalled. “(Rubio) will push her as a setter, because we’re different positions. He’s very hard on the setters and wants them to be as disciplined as possible. So I had to tell her, coming in, you have to be ready for him to nitpick every little thing, because we were raised up to just play street ball. So we don’t really have a lot of technique, we just go out there and we play. So that’s one of the biggest changes coming into this program. Because at our JuCo, our coach kind of adapted to how we played. And then coming here, we had to adapt how he wants things and how the team plays.”
Rubio is grateful that this team, as a whole, is open to the coaching style that Emi prepared her sister to encounter. Before the season started, he said that this team was one he genuinely enjoyed being around. Besides what he referred to as loyalty and gratitude, he also talked about their willingness to be coached.
“I think in today’s day and age, you’ve got to be really careful as a coach, what you say, how hard you push them, how they interpret what you say,” Rubio said. “And the ability to coach a team hard without them taking it personal. We talked about this through the spring, and we had a lot of discussions about it. I think in order for any team to reach its full potential, a coach has got to be really demanding in a good way. And the key to that is in a good way. But the problem is the players determine what a good way is, and so in our discussions with them, it was ‘if we’re going to reach the level we’re capable of reaching, you guys gotta let me coach you in the style of which is positive, but yet demanding—and you guys can’t interpret that as negative and abusive. It has to be positive and demanding, and you want to accept that and step up to the challenge of that.’ And they were all-in on that.
“When the success of the season is determined by the coach’s ability to coach the team without reservation, without apprehension, and without repercussion, then a team will reach its full potential. Then, it’s on the coach. And the reason I like this older group, they understand the process they’ve been through it, and so they allow me to do that. A year ago, that wasn’t really the case. But you go through the year, and they have a better understanding, a better perspective. My relationship with them is much better because of the European trip, and whenever you can establish a good relationship with your players, they’re going to give you more latitude.”
Hina had the advantage of bonding with the team on that summer trip to Europe, but she had to adapt to more than coaching styles, Southwestern culture and 100-degree temperatures when she got to Tucson. While Emi was an important part of Arizona’s backrow rotation as soon as she got to campus, her sister is in a very different situation.
Hina joined a team that has a highly successful senior setter. She knew playing time wouldn’t be readily available this season, and her role would be felt in practice as the B-setter. She has found some advantages to that now that she has settled in.
“Mentally, I really enjoy the process right now and being able to learn from Dave, especially since he’s been coaching for so long,” Hina said. “And definitely to have Julia (Patterson) there. She helps me out a lot and is constantly teaching me ways to adapt more to Dave and what he likes to do. At first, it was kind of a challenge, but right now I’m getting used to it. I knew my role coming into this program, so that helped a lot. It’s just the process that I’m in right now. It’s going good so far.”