Kazna Tarawhiti embraces challenge of helping build a sturdy program at UVU

Kazna Tarawhiti had a plethora of options to choose from when the time came to select a school where she wanted to study and play volleyball following her high school career.

It was the beginning of her sophomore year of high school when the offers really started to flood in. She had received full-ride offers from schools such as Southern Utah University, Northern Colorado University, New Mexico State University and walk on options with Brigham Young University.  She was being recruited by many other universities in Utah, including Utah State, the University of Utah and Weber State, as well as universities in Arizona, California and others in the East.

Of all the schools that had given her offers and others that were still recruiting her, a majority of them were already known to be powerhouses in their respective conferences — if not the nation. BYU and U of U have been ranked nationally this year for a number of weeks, and NMSU has been on top of the WAC for a couple of years. If Tarawhiti wanted to become part of a winning program, she had a number of options to choose from.

For some reason, however, the option of attending a school with a volleyball program that was already established and winning didn’t resonate with Tarawhiti. She didn’t want to join a powerhouse that was previously accustomed to large amounts of success. Rather, she wanted to join a school that hadn’t yet reached that winning potential. She wanted to play for a program where she could play a large role and contribute a great deal in helping a team get to that level of prosperity.

After deciding that was what she wanted to do, choosing Utah Valley University was an easy choice.

“I wanted to be in-state,” said Tarawhiti. “Looking at my different options in-state I always felt the most comfortable with UVU. I felt like I had a lot to offer to that program, which was exciting for me … I wanted to be a part of something that was coming up … If you look at BYU or Utah they already have that expectation. I wanted to be a part of something that could get there and I think UVU is now getting there slowly but surely.”

Tarawhiti didn’t start out as a volleyball player, however. Originally from New Zealand and eventually moving to the states when she was five, Tarawhiti grew up in the sport of dance, along with her only sibling and elder sister, Kotahi. After being a trained dancer up until the age of 12, Tarawhiti was introduced to the sport of volleyball through an activity at her church.

“Someone in my ward was like, ‘Come play and check it out,’” said Tarawhiti. “I showed up in like basketball shorts and random shoes.”

Tarawhiti remembers being a perfectionist throughout her years of practicing dance, which made it hard for her to become accustomed to making mistakes on the volleyball court. Although it took her a little while to adjust to her new sporting atmosphere, she couldn’t resist once she got acquainted with it.

“I didn’t enjoy it at first,” admitted Tarawhiti. “It was hard…(but) I liked just being an athlete. I think just being in that kind of sporting environment because I never really had that… was something new and fun.”

When Tarawhiti started to get the hang of things her mother, Kenra, was one of the main influences in her life who noticed she could be special and pushed her out of her comfort zone to become better. Tarawhiti was part of a club volleyball team in Utah when she was 13, but her mother bumped her from the 13-year-old team to be with the 16-year-old squad. This is what ultimately helped Tarawhiti gain more confidence, knowing that she could compete with other top players who were older than her. The support from her teammates formed a belief in herself that made her fall in love with the sport. 

While attending Pleasant Grove High School in Utah County, Tarawhiti earned plenty of accolades. She was awarded All-State honors and All-Region honors three times, Under Armour All-American honorable mention honors, was recognized as a top 150 player in the nation by Prep Volleyball Aces and helped lead her team to a state championship, to name a few.

While she was in high school — in addition to being recruited by all of the other schools previously mentioned — Tarawhiti attended multiple summer camps at UVU and started to form a bond there. Her high school coach also played at UVU, which helped Tarawhiti make a decision to be a Wolverine in the summer between her sophomore and junior year of high school.

“I loved (the camps),” said Tarawhiti. “The girls on the team at that time, they made me feel really comfortable. They would talk with me and communicate with me and made me feel like I was already part of the team even though I wasn’t. They made a huge impact on my decision to come (to UVU) … Once I got to college I was like ‘I’m a freshman, I’m at the bottom of the barrel, I need to prove myself.’ I use those (high school accomplishments) as motivation to get better because I wanted to make a statement when I got here. I wanted to be able to prove that I deserve to be here.”

And make a statement she did. During her freshman campaign at UVU, she earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors, was first-team all WAC, was named to the WAC All-Freshmen team and the WAC All-Tournament team, all while setting a UVU single-season record with 558 kills and finishing sixth in the nation in that department. Her team finished with a record of 20-14 last year, the best record in the history of the volleyball program at UVU. And, while the records and awards are great, Tarawhiti isn’t worried as much about her individual accomplishments as much as she is helping to get her team to where they want to go.

Kazna Tarawhiti, sophomore, outside hitter returning a serve against GCU. (Photo by Natasha Colburn)

“(Freshman year) was a confidence booster for sure knowing that I can play at this level, at a Division I level, but I’m not satisfied. I won’t ever be comfortable with where I’m at. That was last season and this is a completely new season. I know I have to prove myself from last year as well,” said Tarawhiti.

The 20-year-old, now a sophomore, is looking to improve what she accomplished last season, all the while trying to juggle the challenges of being a student-athlete. According to Tarawhiti, it isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be.

“I think coming in to play a sport I had such a high expectation (that) everything is going to be great, I’m not going to have any worries, I’m just going to have the time of my life,” said Tarawhiti. “When in reality, volleyball is your job. There are going to be times when you’re going to get burnt out and it’s going to be hard. Every student athlete will experience that, you know? People often leave out how hard (student — athlete life) is just being able to experience a new environment, a new team, getting your school work done. You just don’t know until you experience it.”

For example, this semester Tarawhiti is a full-time student taking 13 credits and attending at least one class every day in her endeavor to major in psychology. In the morning of every weekday, she attends a workout with her team that lasts around two hours. After that workout and class, she attends practice with her team, which can go anywhere from 3-4 hours at a time. By the time practice concludes, she has a few hours at night to do her homework before repeating the process the next day. After adding hours of travel for games away from classes, one might understand why being a student-athlete may be hard.

However, she has gotten the hang of how to prioritize her time more efficiently since her freshman year.

“The biggest part for me was learning how to balance everything,” said Tarawhiti. “My freshman year I could have no fun. All I could do was school, volleyball and that’s it. This semester I haven’t been lazy, but I’ve been able to balance my schedule more…A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you have life so easy. You get to miss school, you get these tutors.’ I think a lot of people think the student-athlete life is a lot easier than theirs, but in reality it’s either the same or harder.”

Despite all of the challenges that come with being a student-athlete, Tarawhiti admits that the rewards outweigh any of the struggles that come her way.

“The greatest thing is that I have an opportunity to represent the school, represent my family, represent my team in a way-which is really rewarding,” said Tarawhiti. “It’s really cool being able to travel across the nation and play high-competitive teams. That in and of itself is really rewarding…I (also) love my teammates. They help me whenever I’m in a slump or something. They keep it fun and they keep pushing me. I love the area, too. I love how UVU is just growing more and more. Being able to be a part of that is really cool.”

UVU’s volleyball team is in the middle of the pack in the WAC this year and is trying to get back to the WAC title game after making an appearance last year. Tarawhiti is sure to play a major role if they are able to accomplish that feat, as she is currently leading the WAC with 3.73 kills per set.

“Being able to remain consistent is something that will be really, really important for us throughout the whole match and the rest of the season,” said Tarawhiti. “Our team has a lot of grit … I’m hoping that we make it to the NCAA tournament, but again we have to take it one game at a time.”

Although Tarawhiti and her team has lofty expectations to finish this season, she keeps in mind what is most important and what she will cherish the most when her career is all said and done.

“A big reason why I came is to make an impact,” said Tarawhiti. “If I were to graduate and just look back and see how much the program has grown in my four years of being here that will be really rewarding. Just being able to reflect back on not only as a volleyball player but who I was as a person, hopefully being the person who I want to be, which is a kind, helpful person that anyone can come talk to. For the most part just looking back on my character rather than the stats and the accolades (is what’s most important).”

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