Senior libero Chelsea Tupuola mans the volleyball team’s backcourt, working toward the adage that the best offense is a good defense.
“On the court, when we go up to hit, I can hear [Tupuola]. She yells out where I can hit, what’s open,” junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia said. “A lot of the times I just listen to her and I get the point. She’s also really good at communicating on the court. She takes charge of the passing and the defense.”
“The big asset [Tupuola] has is a high volleyball IQ,” coach Bakeer Ganes said. “She’s not the most athletic kid, she’s not the fittest kid, but she’s always in the right spot.”
Tupuola began developing her volleyball IQ growing up in California, where she learned to love the sport at one of her sister’s college camps at Humboldt State University. She was the youngest of five, all of who played multiple sports, except her.
After spending time as an outside hitter, where she was undersized, her club coach decided she would be best served becoming a defensive specialist. While Tupuola didn’t agree right away, she learned to use her raw passing talents.
“It took me a long time to accept it,” Tupuola said. “I actually did learn to love it. I love it because you piss off a lot of hitters and it’s so much fun. You can ask [Matautia], we’re always on the same side because she does not want to hit against me because she knows I will piss her off.”
After a few years of learning her new position, Tupuola received interest from the University of Arizona, Tennessee University and Temple.
Upon her arrival in Philadelphia four years ago, she was surprised by the fast-paced nature of the city and grew to love the cold weather, including the snow storm that shut down the university, Tupuola said.
“That was so awesome, never had a snow day,” Tupuola said. “East Coast is definitely more fast-paced than West Coast, or California in general.”
A year later, Tupuola was introduced to Matautia, who shares her Samoan background. Tupuola spent days at a time in Matautia’s dorm room during her sophomore year, watching movies and studying, she said.
“I was always in her room, and for some reason I could only study in her room,” Tupuola said. “During finals week I lived in her room. And it grew from there.”
Now the two said they are inseparable.
“Our culture is very giving,” Tupuola said. “Probably people think we’re intimidating a lot, but once we get close to somebody it’s a done-deal, you’re family.”
“[She’s] my [partner in crime],” Matautia said.
Tupuola plays what Ganes said is the least respected position in volleyball. This year, Tupuola has garnered two tournament MVP awards, All-Tournament Team recognition and Best Libero.
“Going out with a bang,” Matautia said of her friend’s final season. “[People] don’t realize you can’t hit the ball if you can’t save the ball in the first place. She’s digging these really good hitters.”
Tupuola’s mom was present for two of those awards at the Temple Invitational.
“Having my mom here, seeing that I got [Tournament MVP and Best Libero] here, which I honestly didn’t expect at all,” Tupuola said. “I was so happy that she got to see that.”
Tupuola tallied 7.7 digs per set in the team’s home tournament, one week after recording 6 digs per set in the Miami (OH) Invitational.
She leads the Atlantic 10 Conference in digs per set for the season, with 5.37.
Her success has helped the Owls get off to a fast start, winning the Temple Invitational and starting the season 12-4, including 2-0 in the A-10. The wins have made the post-game routine a little more entertaining, at least for Tupuola’s teammates, Matautia said.
“That girl loves to get down,” Matautia said. “We will make her dance whenever we want. She’s got this secret dance move that she refuses to show anyone else. That’s why after the game we always play ‘Wobble’ and we’re like, ‘Get up, Chelsea!’”
The Owls hope to continue the early season excitement, dancing included. But for Tupuola, her final games will be some of the hardest she’s ever played, especially when her family visits for the team’s senior day, she said.
“I definitely do not see myself after [this season playing volleyball], but I will be a part of volleyball,” she said. “It’s going to be definitely hard [playing in front of them], because they were a big part of me playing when I was at home.”
But for now it’s all about stopping the next opponent, Xavier, on Friday, Sept. 28.
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jakeadams520.