Ahakuelo stars in multiple ways for James Wood volleyball

paWINCHESTER — Though her family has a strong volleyball background, Paige Ahakuelo wasn’t so sure she wanted to follow in the footsteps when she first began playing the sport at the age of 8.

“I didn’t,” said Ahakuelo when asked if she enjoyed volleyball right away. “I didn’t want to put on the uniform. I didn’t want to put on the spandex. But I think after a few practices, I just fell in love with it.”

Almost a decade later, Ahakuelo couldn’t possibly love volleyball more. That’s evident in her attitude, her ability to thrive in whatever role is required of her, and in the commitment she’s shown to her teams and her individual skills, which she’ll look to continue at the college level.

The 5-foot-7 setter and opposite hitter is the only player to rank on the area regular-season leaderboard in kills (a current total of 161), assists (309), digs (185) and aces (58). Heading into Friday’s Class 4 state title match with Hanover at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, she ranks second on the Colonels in each of those categories except for digs, where she’s third, just eight behind Kennedy Spaid.

“Her ability to play multiple positions is amazing,” said James Wood fourth-year head coach Adrienne Patrick of Ahakuelo, who had never been a hitter until her sophomore year with the Colonels. “One of my philosophies is having all players play all positions, because that only helps make you become a better volleyball player in general. Because of her flexibility and ability to play anywhere, she’s someone who doesn’t come off the court and is a big part of why we’re so successful.”

The two-time All-Region 4D and All-Class 4 Northwestern District selection’s skills are invaluable, but so is her personality on a enthusiastic team where it’s normal to see setter Hannah McCullough dancing during breaks in the action or middle hitter Ashlynn Spence doling out congratulatory shoves to teammates when they make a big play.

“She’s just a goofy, light-hearted person,” McCullough said. “She always messes with me. She loves to drive my car in the parking lot. Whenever I have a meeting here after school when she’s waiting for me in the car, she moves my car to a different parking spot, and I always have to find her. She’s just always happy.”

Patrick said it’s a rare sight indeed to not catch Ahakuelo smiling. And when she’s not, it’s probably because she’s trying to get her teammates to understand something important.

“I think she is a great friend to her teammates,” Patrick said. “She is willing to push her teammates, and give them feedback. The majority of the team super respects that, because they see that competitiveness from her. I look at that as leadership. They kind of feed off that and appreciate that and want that on the court with them.”

Ahakuelo said her father played volleyball in high school, and her aunt played collegiately. Ahakuelo moved to Virginia from Waianae, Hawaii, for the start of fifth grade. Since moving to Virginia, she’s played for Northern Virginia Volleyball Association and for Virginia Juniors before moving on to Paramount Volleyball Club based in Manassas when she was 13. Of the 10 girls on James Wood’s roster, Ahakuelo is one of only two who doesn’t play for Blue Ridge Volleyball in Winchester.

When she was younger, Ahakuelo thought the defensive libero position was the place for her on the volleyball court. But at age 12, a former coach suggested Ahakuelo give setting a try, and that’s been her main focus ever since.

“I’ve just grown into it,” Ahakuelo said. “It took a little bit of time [to develop]. I was standing setting at the beginning, but then found myself getting stronger to start jump setting, getting more competitive, kind of controlling the game more.”

Ahakuelo said joining Paramount has helped her flourish in numerous ways. She’s traveled to places like Georgia and Chicago, and Las Vegas for nationals. She earned a top setter award for her division when she was 16 at the prestigious Capitol Hill Classic, which features almost 1,000 teams from ages 12-18 in Washington, D.C.

“They got me out of my shell,” Ahakuelo said. “I used to not talk at all. They got me to become the leader I kind of am on the court today. They really brought out the competitiveness in me, and a lot of fundamentals.”

Though Ahakuelo is a setter for Paramount, she’s certainly been a lot more than that for James Wood.

Patrick said Ahakuelo participated in workouts for James Wood as a freshman during the COVID year of 2020-21, but ultimately didn’t participate in the abbreviated Frederick County season in the spring of 2021.

She made her varsity debut as a sophomore and ranked third on the team and seventh in the area in assists with 96, third on the team and 11th in the area in aces with 49, and fourth on the team and 13th in the area in kills with 103 on a squad that went 17-7 and advanced to the Region 4C semifinals.

“I felt pretty comfortable, because I’ve always wanted to hit,” Ahakuelo said. “I was given amazing sets, and I wanted to help as much as I can as a hitter.”

Patrick was also impressed with Ahakuelo’s setting abilities in 2021 as a sophomore. In 2022, with the graduation of Katey Matthews, James Wood leaned on Ahakuelo and McCullough as setters, and Ahakuelo ranked third in the area and first on the team with 455 assists and 10th in the area with 193 digs.

“She has a phenomenal way of getting to the ball by reading where it’s going to go, and she has a very, very calm and consistent tempo,” Patrick said. “For a setter, that’s very important. That was already evident as a sophomore.”

This year, she’s still setting up her teammates at a high rate but James Wood has counted on her more than ever before for offense on the right side in a role similar to the one she had as a sophomore. Her 161 kills are second only to Spaid’s 332.

Ahakuelo’s hitting efficiency has a lot to do with it. The four James Wood players who were on last year’s team and have 100-plus kills this year have improved their hitting percentage (kills minus errors divided by total attacks). Overall, Ahakuelo ranks third on the team behind Spaid (.332) and Tenley Mattison (.320) with a .318 percentage, this after she hadn’t been over .100 in her two previous seasons for the Colonels (.089 as a sophomore, .070 as a junior).

“She’s hitting with more range by hitting to different places on the court, and with more power,” Patrick said.

As setters, McCullough said it’s their job to see the whole floor, and she thinks that helps Ahakuelo when she’s hitting.

“She can put the ball anywhere, and she knows exactly where to put it,” McCullough said.

Ahakuelo can hit with a lot of power, but she generates plenty of kills when no one is expecting it. There have been many times where it looks like Ahakuelo will set the ball, then at the last moment she’ll flick it with two hands into an open spot on the court on the opponents’ side, or a spot that makes them scramble.

“She has the cleanest hands I’ve ever seen,” McCullough said. “She has a finesse on her little dumps when she sends it over the net. She always tries to get me to do it, but I get scared. Sometimes we’ll be in a little bit of a pickle and the score’s getting close, and she’ll be like, ‘Send it over,’ but I don’t do it at the last second.’”

Ahakuelo will do it with a light touch, but she can also push the ball with force.

“That’s a practiced skill, and Paige is very good at it,” Patrick said. “For her to be so successful at it, that goes to her court awareness and ability to see that there’s a hole. And she’s fast with it.”

Ahakuelo can do more things on the court than most people, and she wants all of those areas to be strong.

“I think I can still improve a lot of my game,” Ahakuelo said. “I still think I’ll never be done improving. But I think this season has been pretty good for me.”

Being hungry to do better helps Ahakuelo in the present, and will serve her well during club season when she looks to make her final impression on college coaches.

Ahakuelo will clearly miss playing with the Colonels once it’s time to focus on club season, then college ball. She appreciates how they’ve accepted her even though she didn’t grow up playing with them.

“We always pray together before matches,” Ahakuelo said. “We sing together before games, we eat together before games. It’s a very strong bond that we have. [On Friday], I think we’re all going to give it our all, especially us seniors, wanting it to be a repeat of last year.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
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