Heading to Highlands


Kamehameha-Hawaii senior Acacia Kaaa had never heard of New Mexico Highlands University. She had no idea the Division II school was located in a town called Las Vegas. She also had no clue the Cowgirls — the school’s nickname — had a volleyball team.

Despite all that, she’s going to Las Vegas in New Mexico to play college ball. In fact, Kaaa, a 5-foot-5 libero, signed her National Letter of Intent last month before she visited the school, which has roughly 3,700 students and several interesting tidbits.

For one thing, the Highlands men’s basketball team broke the NCAA record for turnaround wins in all divisions in the 2008-09 season. The Cowboys rebounded from a 1-28 season to go 20-8, capturing the West Division of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

The RMAC is also home to Western New Mexico, where Kassie Kagawa (Waiakea, 2010), Keirsa Pakani-Tsukiyama (Waiakea, 2012) and Chyler Imai (Kohala, 2012) are playing for the Mustangs.

Highlands is in a rebuilding mode and finished last season with a 6-23 record — the Cowgirls were last in the West Division at 2-17. However, first-year coach Bryan Crawford holds a shiny resume having turned around two junior colleges. In 2011, he coached Iowa Central to a 44-6 record and a No. 10 national ranking.

If Kaaa, who has a 3.7 grade point average and plans to major in sports psychology, wants to throw trivia at her friends, she can mention that the campus was seen in the movie Red Dawn as the town of Calumet, Colo.

“I visited last weekend, and I really like the school,” she said. “There’s a lot of renovation going on. There’s a new building, new housing, and the gym is new. The town is really small (population 16,000). It’s sort of like Hilo. It feels like home. It’s not a big university and I like that also.

“I really like the coach, him and his assistant (Alfred Agcaoili). They’re really nice. I met his family and everything and played with his little boys. I felt welcomed when I got there. That was really important. I met the girls, and they were so open to me coming. That was really good and very comforting.”

She can also take comfort that the university’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences is accredited by the Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

There are no Hawaii players on the roster. But Kamehameha teammate, Shae Kanakaole, the BIIF Division I Player of the Year, could join her. The 5-8 outside hitter has been offered a scholarship.

“They really want her. The coaches kept telling me to get Shae to come over,” Kaaa said. “I told them I was trying my best. They want to build a Hawaii pipeline.”

One of Kamehameha’s assistant coaches, Adam Tuifagu, knows the Highlands coaching staff. He was asked to recommend players. Kaaa also put up a profile on ncsasports.org, which allowed the staff to scout and evaluate her.

She made the All-BIIF first team at setter. However, it’s rare for someone 5-5 to start at setter, even at a Division II school. But she’s expected to compete for playing time at libero, where size is less of an issue.

“I’m really excited to play libero,” said Kaaa, who was a defender as a sophomore. “I think if I had to choose, I’d much rather play libero. I love defense and passing. I really like the feeling of digging someone’s ball when they think they have a kill. Passing is the most important thing. Without the pass, you can’t run anything.”

Besides Tuifagu, her other coaching influences were her parents. Her dad, Kyle, is the Kamehameha coach and her mom, Jennifer, is an assistant.

“My dad was always my coach on the court, teaching me the game, all the skills I needed to know,” she said. “My mom was behind the scenes and didn’t get a lot of recognition. But she was always there for me and supported me. It was a physical and mental thing. My dad was the physical aspect, and my mom helped with the mental part.

“They’ve taught me a bunch of life lessons. The biggest thing is just have a positive attitude all the time. You need to have a positive attitude or else you can’t do too much with a bad attitude.”

The scholarship will cover everything, except her books. However, if there’s leftover money, she could use that to buy books or an old Red Dawn DVD.

Meanwhile, the previous school year, 2011-12, was a banner one for BIIF student-athletes signing scholarships. More than 40 signed letters of intent to play in college. Baseball players led the way with 15, with football and volleyball players tied with 12 each.

So far, only three have signed scholarships: Kaaa, Ka‘u’s Marley Strand-Nicolaisen with UH-Hilo for volleyball, and Waiakea’s Ciera Min with Gonzaga for golf. However, there are at least 10 baseball players who were offered scholarships.

“It’s pretty amazing that a school would pay for you to play on a team, pay for your education,” she said. “I’m excited and looking forward to a new experience. When I got that call, I had to research because I never heard about Highlands.

“I never thought I’d end up there. But I visited and now here I am going to a place I never heard about. It’s funny how things work out.”