COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN
Brandon Bobcats' womens' volleyball team member Margarent Lazaele at a practice, Monday afternoon.
Vaovai Aiono and Margaret Lafaele have travelled halfway around the world to join the Brandon University Bobcats women’s volleyball team, and they’re loving it.
Brandon Bobcats' womens' volleyball team member Vaovai Aiono at a practice, Monday afternoon. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)
Aiono, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter, and Lafaele, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, finally arrived from New Zealand last week to join their new squad. The pair would have been in Brandon earlier, but their student visas were delayed.
They’ve only had a couple days to get used to their new surroundings and new teammates, but they are happy they decided to come to Canada.
"Everyone’s been so friendly," Aiono said. "They just say ‘Hi’ and ‘How are we?’ It’s weird."
"Just real kind people," added Lafaele. "Lovely people and real helpful. They welcomed us real good and we felt like we were back at home."
Aiono and Lafaele bring a lot of experience with them. Lafaele, 23, started playing volleyball when she was 12 and is a former member of New Zealand’s national team. Aiono, 20, has a similar story, except she started playing volleyball when she was 14 and is still a member of the national squad.
While both players, who grew up in South Auckland, were enjoying their time playing volleyball back home, they both craved something different. New Zealand’s national volleyball program isn’t strong and doesn’t compensate its athletes and they were responsible to cover their own travel costs and accommodations. They were also looking to start a bit of a new adventure.
Then Sam Tuivai, who was named a second-team all-Canadian with the Bobcats men’s volleyball team last season, came calling.
Tuivai, who has known Lafaele since they were in high school, sent both women a message on Facebook telling them about his past two seasons in the Wheat City. They were intrigued by the opportunity, were visited by BU head coach Lee Carter during the summer and committed to play for his Bobcats.
It took a while for their student visas to come in, and Lafaele is extremely happy Aiono’s was approved.
"I don’t think my parents would have let me come by myself," she said. "It’s way easier to come with Vaovai."
The two Kiwis have been well-received by the Bobcats. They find the community very friendly and are enjoying their time so far.
They admit the style of volleyball is a little faster, but they believe they’ll adjust to it. However, it may take Aiono a little more time to get used to the pace of play as she returned to her homeland this morning to rejoin the national team for a one-week stint. She’ll train with them for a few days before New Zealand’s national team travels to Chenzhou, China to compete in the Asian qualifier for the Women’s Volleyball World Championship. The squad will play four matches in four days with the top two teams in the pool — which includes China, South Korea, Kazakhstan and India — advancing the world championship.
Going back home is hard for Aiono, as she wanted to get settled in Brandon.
"It’s really tough," she said. "I thought that the team was travelling next year, but my coach actually pushed for me to go this year to try out. I kind of wanted to focus on coming here first, but my coach pushed for us."
Aiono will miss the Bobcats’ first pre-season action this weekend at a tournament at the University of Winnipeg. Her first live action on the court will be at BU’s home tournament from Oct. 11-13.
Having Aiono and Lafaele with the Bobcats will create a lot more competition for the outside hitter positions, although no one knows where they’ll end up on the depth chart yet. Carter, however, can’t wait to see how it will all sort out before the Canada West season starts on Oct. 25 when the Bobcats host the Regina Cougars.
"They’ll bring depth," Carter said. "Everybody hopes they’ll end up starting and be the most dominating player in Canada, but right now they’re just one of our 14 and we’ll see how they fit in and how the systems go and everything from there. We just want them to feel welcome and understand everything that’s going on."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 24, 2013