By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Carly Kan and Loxley Keala spent most of their lives on opposite sides of the net, not to mention 4,000 miles away from their current city.
The Hawaiian transplants in this tale of rivals-turned-friends are a pair of standout freshmen on the 25-0 University of Missouri volleyball team which is now ranked seventh in the nation and is one of only two unbeaten teams nationally.
The two Honolulu natives first met at an early age playing soccer. After switching to volleyball – the island’s most popular sport – the two evolved into a pair of the most decorated high school players in the state, doing so from opposing teams, both high school and club.
“We actually met when we were quite young,” Keala said. “We played soccer for the same club when we were eight or nine. We both decided to change into the sport of volleyball and have always been rivals – we were on different club teams and our schools were rivals. Even though we lived in a very small area, I wasn’t close with her and we were never on the same team.”
Though the two spent little time together during their adolescence, their stories are remarkably similar.
Both players hail from athletic families and their fathers each played sports at a high level and their siblings competed collegiately.
Darryl Kan – Carly’s father - was an NFL quarterback with the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers, while her brother Brett played quarterback at USC. Lynden Keala – Loxley’s father – was a setter at the University of LaVerne and spent 15 years as a club volleyball coach, while her sister Logan was a three-year volleyball starter at Colgate.
Both were exceptional prep athletes in their own rights.
Kan was the 2012 Hawaii State Tournament MVP, leading her team to the state title and a No. 9 national ranking. Keala was a three-time All-State selection and helped direct her squad to a third-place finish at the State Tournament in 2011.
“Our schools were rivals – we always played her team and I’ve always known that she was really good,” Kan said of Keala. “It’s definitely different actually being on her team and it’s always something that I’ve wanted to do.”
It’s almost as if they were meant to converge at some point in their lives – a fate that became reality when each independently committed to Missouri after their sophomore seasons in high school.
Both athletes speak to how their initial visit to the school’s Columbia campus made them “fall in love” with the University of Missouri.
Kan and Keala knew, upon first sight, that there wasn’t any other school they would rather attend.
“We like to think that we provide a good experience for kids here,” said Wayne Kreklow, Missouri’s ninth-year head coach, who has been on staff at the school for 14 years. “When they came, they both just went away thinking that there was no question that this was where they wanted to be.”
What the two found when they arrived in Columbia in advance of the 2013 season was a team that felt more like a family; one that featured uniquely strong chemistry and welcomed them with open arms.
“It’s so amazing to be a part of this family,” Keala said. “Everyone on the team is so close and the coaches treat us like family. I’ve never been a part of anything like this. I can’t even explain it.”
That cohesion, Kreklow believes, has been a big key to his team’s success this year.
“It’s always a challenge to try to keep that – to develop it and to maintain it,” he said. “It’s hard because, at the end of the day, the reality is that on a volleyball team, there is going to be a core group of people who play the majority of points. Some players aren’t going to get as much time. We try to keep a healthy balance and make everyone feel valuable.
“That was one really important challenge that this group, individually has really bought in to,” Kreklow continued. “Our staff has done a phenomenal job of facilitating that as well.”
As welcome as the pair has felt in its first semester in the Midwest, there are still those differences and cultural dissimilarities that Kan and Keala can only relate to amongst themselves.
“Hawaii is very unique and it’s hard to transition sometimes,” Kan said. “Probably the biggest thing, especially now, is that it’s getting really cold. It’s definitely not something I’m used to. In Hawaii, it’s in the 60s at worst; here, it’s already been 30 degrees. Sometimes the food gets you too because it can be so different.”
That bond of shared experiences and backgrounds have helped the two become good friends in their short time together, an alliance that has eased what might have been a difficult adjustment.
“We have gotten so much closer coming here,” Keala said. “I feel like we’ve both made things easier for each other. We both know what each other is going through and our parents are far away. It has definitely helped a lot.”
The dynamic of two players from similar upbringings is one that Kreklow believes has made an important impact in their rapid and smooth transition to the collegiate game.
“Coming from the same general area and background certainly helps,” Kreklow said. “I don’t think they were particularly close or good friends before they came, but they had that sense of familiarity. They seem to be very well-adjusted. I’m almost more pleased and just as happy with them as people as I am with them as players.”
Still, what Kan and Keala have accomplished on the court in their inaugural seasons with the Tigers has been impressive.
Kan, the reigning Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week, is, at 5-foot-9, one of the shorter outside hitters in the league, but you wouldn’t know from looking at her statistics. She ranks sixth in the SEC in hitting percentage with a .369 clip and is second on her team with 3.18 kills per set. Kan has helped power a Missouri offense that leads the nation in hitting percentage (.363) and is second nationally in kills per set (15.34).
“Carly, obviously, is just putting up unbelievable numbers offensively,” Kreklow said. “I knew that initially about Carly – every time I would watch her play, club coaches would come up to me after and say, ‘Your future libero led us in kills today.’ She just does so many things on the court for us right now.”
Keala, playing behind senior standout Molly Kreklow at setter, has been used as a defensive specialist and secondary setter in her first year with the team. She is one of five players on her team with better than 100 digs on the year, averaging 1.95 digs per set.
“Lox has done a really good job as somebody that came in as a setter, but has been really good at her role as a DS,” Kreklow said. “We talked to her early in the season about the fact that we would really like to use her in a back-row capacity this year. She was very open and willing to do that. She provides a lot of stability in the back row, is a second setter on the floor, reads really good in transition and takes over on second balls back there. Her floor game has really helped us a ton.”
Given the strides both players have made in their few months at Missouri, it’s easy to forget that Kan and Keala are freshmen. After all, they are key contributors to the Tigers’ ascension to the top-10 this season.
It’s a reality that neither could have imagined, much like their parallel journey from the Aloha State to the Show-Me State.
“This year, I never would have expected this to ever happen,” Kan said. “Coming in as a freshman, I was hoping to maybe just get playing time. I’m really glad that I’ve been able to contribute in the way I have. This has been a really great experience. I am lucky to be playing with this great group of people.”