The drive to Sioux City, Iowa, was flat, landlocked and cold, but in some ways the 90-minute ride felt just like home to Toni Beck.
The Ka‘u High senior has been traversing the Big Island for years for club volleyball, first to Kailua-Kona to play with Hoopa, and most recently to Hilo’s Pilipaa.
Starting in August, all roads lead to Briar Cliff University. Beck signed a national letter of intent with the Chargers last month, receiving a full scholarship — 50 percent academic, 50 percent athletic — allowing her to pursue the nursing career she’s long coveted.
“It’s such a relief; now I can really enjoy my senior year,” said Beck, who has a 4.0 grade point average. “Everything seemed to click at Briar Cliff. I wanted a small school, and nursing is a big thing for me. Just helping people.”
Among the schools she also considered were Lamar Community College, Lewis &Clark and Long Island University.
Beck said much of her college selection process involved “a lot of Googling and stress.”
That changed when Briar Cliff coach Trevor Schirman, a former star at Punahou High and UCLA, called Pilipaa coach Chris Leonard to ask if he knew of any prospects.
Leonard’s response: I have a player that will be perfect for you.
“I got called in and the ball kept rolling,” said Beck, who made a recruiting visit to Sioux City last month after a tournament in Las Vegas. “When I went there it snowed. It was nice though. I’d seen it on the ground, but never falling from the sky. It was amazing.
“It’s bigger than Ka‘u, that’s for sure, but it’s still in the middle of nowhere.”
The 6-footer earned first-team All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation honors at middle blocker as a senior with the Trojans after making the second team the previous two years. Her junior year, Ka‘u won the school’s first BIIF title.
The Chargers finished 20-17 last season in Schirman’s first year, including 1-2 at the NAIA national volleyball tournament. The team returns 12 players and Beck is one of 12 incoming recruits. Schirman told Beck to get ready to move to outside hitter.
“He liked that I always go for the block, and always help out,” Beck said.
To play with Pilipaa, she comes to Hilo two to three times a week and sleeps at a friend’s house, driving to school in the morning.
“I’ve got to thank my parents for letting me use limitless amounts of gas,” she said.
Her mom, Sharon Beck, is the Ka‘u High principal and her father, James, is a purchasing manager who commutes to Kailua-Kona.
Before playing for Leonard, Beck was mentored by Hoopa coach Ainsley Keawekane.
“Ainsley got me working on technical stuff and got me started,” Beck said. “Coach Chris got me to a higher level.”
She barely knows a soul in Iowa, but one of her best friends, former Ka‘u teammate Marley Strand-Nicolaisen, provided a ringing endorsement of college life. Strand-Nicolaisen, the 2013 Pacific West Conference Freshman of the Year, encouraged her friend to follow her to the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Vulcans coach Tino Reyes wanted Beck to apply for a chancellor’s scholarship.
“Marley can’t believe I’m going to Iowa,” Beck said. “I think I need to. If I don’t leave now, I never will. It’s just about trying new experiences, seeing new people, new things.”