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Bakeer Ganesharatnam and ‘the Hawaiian girls’ create an unlikely recruiting pipeline for Temple volleyball

Nikki Saito, Falanika Danielson, Xeryah Salanoa and Nikki Shimao all hail from Hawaii and make up a group the team lovingly refers to today as “the Hawaiian girls.”

Temple sophomore libero Falanika Danielson prepares to serve during a volleyball match.
Temple sophomore libero Falanika Danielson prepares to serve during a volleyball match.Read moreCourtesy of Temple

If you walk into a volleyball gym in Hawaii, you’re likely to meet people who know Temple.

Temple volleyball coach Bakeer Ganesharatnam played a hand in recruiting the program’s first Hawaiian-born player 11 years ago — a practice that has grown common during his tenure.

Ganesharatnam previously served as a full-time assistant on West Virginia’s staff and was friendly with then-Owls coach Bob Bertucci. In 2010, when Bertucci couldn’t attend a tournament in Southern California, he asked Ganesharatnam to evaluate a player on his behalf.

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Bertucci, impressed with what he heard, added Gabriella Matautia, a native of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, to the team. One year later, in 2011, Bertucci stepped down and Ganesharatnam was hired as his successor.

Matautia was the first in a long line of Hawaiians to played volleyball for the Owls.

“She was an outstanding player and she kind of jump-started the whole process,” Ganesharatnam said. “Because of her, we went out to Hawaii and kind of established ourselves there and started recruiting.”

Today, junior Nikki Saito, sophomore Falanika Danielson, senior Xeryah Salanoa and freshman Nikki Shimao make up a group the team lovingly refers to as “the Hawaiian girls.” All four players are from the County of Honolulu and have formed a bond as members of the Owls, who are 2-3 since starting their season on Aug. 27. They play Towson at 4 p.m. Friday in Towson, Md.

“Volleyball is a huge part of [our lives], like everyone plays it,” Danielson said. “In Hawaii, sports are what help you get off the island, sports are what gets you that scholarship. Everything is sports.”

Volleyball is one of the premier sports on the island, and Ganesharatnam had nothing but praise forthe high-level coaches there who produce Division I talent.

The longtime Temple coach said virtually no one in Hawaii had heard of North Philadelphia when he first started recruiting in Hawaii. Over a decade later, that’s no longer the case.

And each player on the current roster has their own unique story about ending up at Temple.

Saito was introduced to the program after the parents of Mia Heirakuji, a Hawaiian native who graduated in 2019, informed her family about Temple. The junior said word has spread quickly about the growing island-to-Temple pipeline.

As for Danielson, Salanoa and Shimao, they were each recruited to play for the Owls after being noticed at tournaments.

“It’s all about getting off the rock,” Salanoa said.

The biggest challenge of recruiting girls from Hawaii, according to Ganesharatnam, is how infrequently they play on the mainland. But he sends one member of his staff out to Hawaii to see recruits play at least once per year to create a “steady presence from a recruiting standpoint.”

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Players who take the leap and create successful careers at Temple then go back to Hawaii and share their experiences, which creates another advantage on the recruiting trail.

While many Temple programs put an emphasis on finding players in their own backyard — focusing on Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — Ganesharatnam simply recruits the best players possible.

“We do have players from all over the country and all over the world, to a certain degree,” Ganesharatnam said. “They’re far from home so we make sure to take care of them when they’re here. I think it also helps that their teammates — a lot of them are in a similar situation.”

Temple’s four Hawaii natives only have the opportunity to visit home twice a year, so they depend on each other to provide a piece of home in North Philly.

So much so that “the Hawaii girls” often deploy their own special language. They laugh about speaking Pidgin, an English-based creole language spoken in Hawaii, in public and around teammates. Saito said sometimes it sounds like they’re “taking shortcuts’' in the English language.

It was a bit of a culture shock for each player to move to the big city, nowhere near a beach, away from family.

“The team is my team, of course,” Saito said. “But I feel a special bond between the Hawaii girls. We know each other, we were raised the same way and I just feel safe.”