Kuulei and Hannah Zalopany were born and raised in Hawaii, a state with an impressive NCAA volleyball history.
Yet the sisters, key figures on Mead’s state qualifier which begins defense of its State 4A title Friday, had never played the game until their arrival in the colder climes of Spokane five years ago.
“My sister and I grew up playing soccer,” said Kuulei, the eldest. “We were really good playing soccer.”
Their parents encouraged them to turn out for fall’s first school sport, volleyball, as a way to meet friends. Soccer became a thing of the past and both hope someday to return to the islands and continue their volleyball careers in college.
Their surname is Ukranian, Kuulei said, but they are a blend of nationalities – including Hawaiian, Chinese and German. Their dad, Leonard, was reared on the islands where he met their mother, Lisa, when she moved there following graduation from college in Washington.
Now a senior, Kuulei is a third-year Panthers varsity player and returning All-Greater Spokane League outside hitter. Last weekend she piled up impressive statistics in Mead’s regional championship effort.
“She was amazing,” coach Judy Kight said of the performance. “It was her first time back in a while (because of a back injury). She hadn’t been able to play all out and had a great tournament.”
Sophomore Hannah, in her second season on varsity, is a right-side hitter opposite her sister. Kight said her blocking was also instrumental in the regional championship effort, which included a win over No. 1 ranked Richland.
“It was a sweet regional, I’ll tell you,” Kight said. “We’re just about peaking.”
Mead is making its 12th straight state appearance. It has won seven titles and trophied in all 11 previous tournaments.
The Zalopanys and their teammates are the latest incarnation of the dynasty, in a rare occurrence the GSL’s lone State 4A qualifier.
Kuulei and fellow seniors Kaely Kight, Paige Montgomery, Danika Christen and Ellie Bilyeau met as seventh-graders at Northwood Middle School, then as players on Kelly Kight’s U14 club team. Their game blossomed.
“I think each senior brings something to the team,” said Kuulei, who downplayed her statistics during regional. “There is no go-to person. This is a complete team.”
Hannah, one of eight sophomores on varsity, began playing at Brentwood Elementary and started club play at the U12 level. She credits her older sister’s influence with taking her in the direction of volleyball.
“I was still more into soccer, but definitely her doing good in volleyball made me want to play even more,” Hannah said.
She gained valuable experience last year as a varsity freshman, but with more expected of her this season, Hannah has made a big jump in her contributions.