Photos courtesy of Nick Ferry.
In the overwhelming sea of green, a sizable amount of maroon could be seen shining bright in the Stan Sheriff Center on the campus of the University of Hawaii. Maroon shirts are a common sight inside Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College, but it was more of a phenomenon at the Outrigger Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The majority of the people sporting SC’s colors were there for one reason: to support their hometown hero, sophomore opposite hitter Tyler Tanaka.
“There were 200 people in the bleachers with Tyler signs,” men’s volleyball coach Charlie Sullivan said. “He was home.”
“All of my teammates were telling me how cool it was to just have that support in a totally foreign environment,” Tanaka said.
Unlike his teammates, the environment was far from foreign to Tanaka, who lives in Kailua on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. His family is actually friends with head coach Charlie Wade of the men’s volleyball team at the University of Hawaii, so Tanaka knew about the possible invitation his team could receive to play in the Outrigger Invitational even before Sullivan.
“It was one of the hardest things not telling everyone that we were going,” Tanaka said.
Even more difficult for Tanaka, however, was the prospect of playing live in front of his family and hometown friends for the first time as a member of the Pride. Previously, his family had only watched him online via the Springfield College Athletic Department’s live streaming of the games.
“I was definitely nervous. Before the first game, I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous to play volleyball,” Tanaka said. “But after I started playing and after just kind of getting back into everything, I totally forgot about it. It was just like playing another game.”
Tanaka earned the start for his team’s first game of the tournament against the University of Hawaii, which was a personal journey that probably seemed longer than the 5,020 miles between Springfield and Honolulu.
Nick Ferry, who himself travels from Valencia, Calif. to attend SC, has known Tanaka ever since they met as opponents at the USA Volleyball Boys’ Junior National Championships for their club teams.
“We’ve been playing each other since we were probably 15-years-old,” Ferry said. “He was always on one of the top teams, and I was always on one of the top teams and we always competed against each other at Junior Nationals [and] Holiday Classics.”
At their last Junior Nationals, both Tanaka and Ferry had already verbally committed to attending SC, so they talked for a while when not competing.
“At first, we were all awkward and weird around each other just because we were making friends and all that, but definitely now Tyler is one of my best friends if not my best friend at this school,” Ferry said. “He’s sincerely such a good guy. He’s patient with putting up with me all the time, and he’s a great volleyball player.”
Despite playing organized volleyball since fifth or sixth grade, Tanaka’s first focus when searching for colleges was his major, physical therapy. Before discovering SC, Tanaka did not think his chances were strong of playing volleyball for a college team, because none of the schools he was interested in had a quality team.
After stumbling upon Springfield College, he realized that he could have the best of both worlds. Tanaka said he was sold on SC because of their intense P.T. program and the fact that Sullivan, whom Tanaka had played for at several USA Volleyball Developmental Camps in the past, was the head coach at SC.
He was so set on SC that he only applied to one other school, coincidentally the University of Hawaii, just so he had a backup option.
“Ideally, I didn’t want to stay in Hawaii for college,” Tanaka said. “We call it ‘The Rock’ because after a while there’s nothing to do, and I just wanted to see new things and get a new perspective, so coming to the East Coast really helped me with that.”
Life away from the relaxed environment that Tanaka was accustomed to in Hawaii took some adjusting to, as he had to catch up to the faster lifestyle of the East Coast.
“Everyone walks fast, everyone is 10 minutes early for everything and it was really different for me at first,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka credited his teammates with helping smooth the transition, since he had a set group right away that accepted him into the volleyball family.
“We’re like a brotherhood,” Tanaka said. “I eat most of my meals with them, and I know they always have my back with everything. We’re just such a tight-knit team.”
Although Tanaka enjoyed his freshman year with the team, he was buried on the depth chart behind two or three other outside hitters. His freshman year was also marred by a calf strain that ended his chances of playing quality minutes.
The 6-foot, 3 inch sophomore admits that he possessed a typical freshman attitude last season, being content with not starting or playing much because of his grade level.
“After this past year, my mentality took a whole 180-degree turn, and I was like, ‘I have to buckle down and really start to get better,’” Tanaka said.
“He put together a summer of dedication to getting stronger and playing better, and it’s come to fruition,” Sullivan said. “Right away in the fall, he was probably our most improved player. He was really aggressive about moving up the depth chart and solidifying himself as a key component to the team this year.”
“Besides talent, he brings positive energy [and] that fire,” Ferry added. “The kid works hard day in and day out, and he’s a good leader in that way.”
Tanaka stuck to a demanding routine over the summer that pushed him to his limits, working out three to four times a week for two-and-a-half to three hours. He also focused on rehabbing his calf by working out barefoot to build up strength for the first two months.
“He really put in the work over the summer,” Ferry said. “He was a pretty skinny kid coming into Springfield, and he came back [this year] kind of a monster, looking really buff, and it showed on the court. He’s hitting the ball a lot harder.”
Tanaka relied on the volleyball brotherhood to keep him motivated throughout the summer, waging a friendly competition with Ferry via Skype.
“We had this competitive thing going where we’d Skype about every two or three days and we’d talk about how much we were lifting, what we lifted,” Ferry said. “We pushed each other so much because of it.”
“Whenever I wanted to skip a workout, it would be like, ‘No, I can’t let Nick beat me,’” Tanaka said.
Tanaka performed a full-body warm-up prior to a heavy squat, deadlift or bench, then added in plyometrics, power movements and various other exercises throughout the summer.
When he returned to SC, Tanaka resumed his position as an outside hitter, but shortly before the season, Sullivan moved him to opposite because he knew Tanaka had experience and could handle the switch.
“We just needed a little more firepower out there, and he was hitting the ball hard, so it was just a matter of utilizing his talents to the fullest,” Sullivan said.
Tanaka adjusted to the move in time to start SC’s first game at the Outrigger Invitational and will be a key member of the young team’s season as it continues. Keep an eye on the flying Hawaiian as he and the Pride take on Emmanuel Sat. at 7 p.m. in Blake Arena.