Senior night is typically the lone night of a student-athlete’s career when the team pays homage to its elders for their four years of effort, when the night is just as much about saying thank you as it is the final score.
At McGonigle Hall on Sept. 28, junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia, still a year away from donning the Cherry and White for the last time, got her own unique night, Hawaiian Night.
Matautia was able to celebrate her heritage with her father and brother, who added to the theme by bringing Hawaiian leis for the crowd.
“I was looking forward to seeing her play because I haven’t had a chance to make it here the past three years,” Martin Matautia, her father, said. “It came out to be what I was envisioning, just to see how she grew up as a volleyball player.”
Gabriella Matautia, who hails from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, put on a show on Hawaiian Night as Temple hosted heavily favored Atlantic 10 Conference foe Xavier, knocking down 18 kills while recording 12 digs and two aces in the team’s five-set upset victory.
“I’ve been talking to my teammates about how nervous I was,” Gabriella Matautia said. “I didn’t want to let [my family] down.”
Gabriella Matautia spent most of her life on the Hawaiian beaches playing volleyball year round. She grew up with the sport partly because Hawaii is a volleyball mecca, but mostly because her parents met as part of the All-Army volleyball team, where both served in the armed forces. Her mother couldn’t attend Hawaiian Night because of a West Point Academy reunion in New York.
“Hawaii was good because it’s such a big volleyball community,” Gabriella Matautia said, “I just fell in love with the game that brought my parents together.”
After high school, Gabriella Matautia chose Temple because she wanted to see a new part of the world. She didn’t even know Temple existed until former coach Bob Bertucci offered her a scholarship.
“It’s so big here,” Gabriella Matautia said. “I came on my visit and it was just so cool. There’s so much to do around here and it’s so different from home. So I just wanted to get out and check out the world I guess.”
Coach Bakeer Ganes first watched Gabriella Matautia while recruiting as an assistant for West Virginia and knew Temple was interested in her, so he called up Bertucci and offered his thoughts.
“I’m not saying [Bertucci] did that because I said that, but I really thought she was a good player back then, and I’m glad [Bertucci] did offer her a scholarship because I’m really happy to have her on the team,” Ganes said.
However, the move was tough for her family, Martin Matautia said.
“I was so nervous about having to see your own daughter leave when you’re with her so long in your life,” Martin Matautia said. “I was so sad. It was very tough.”
“She was like another mom,” her brother Austin Matautia, 14, said. “She took care of me when my parents were at work and stuff.”
But Gabriella “Hawaiian Punch” Matautia quickly found a home with Samoan senior libero Chelsea Tupuola, and teamed up with junior outside hitter Elyse Burkert to create a dangerous attack trio for the Owls.
“I can learn from someone so aggressive and so strong,” Burkert said. “It’s good because we’re there for each other. I’m so lucky that we came in together. It’s so good because every year I’ll get to play with her.”
Gabriella Matautia hits primarily from the weak, or opposite, side on offense, whereas Burkert hits from the power side. The pairing allows Ganes to split his top two weapons to create favorable matchups against opposing blocks.
“You really have a lot of pull if you create the right angle,” Ganes said. “[Gabriella Matautia] really has a good approach now, a good angle.”
Burkert said Gabriella Matautia’s power on the weak side helps even more as she’s typically facing the weakest side of a defense’s block. Gabriella Matautia is second on the team with 3.75 kills per set, most of which have come from the weak side.
“She is put in a really good position hitting over there because she’s so powerful and she can hit against outside hitters [who aren’t the best blockers],” Burkert said.
Gabriella Matautia’s presence is an added boost as Burkert and her have one more year together, when they’ll get to share that senior night every college athlete craves. Hawaiian Night may have been just a sampling of what’s to come.
“She is evolving as a player and she’s getting better and better,” Ganes said. “She’s not done yet.”
Jake Adams can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jakeadams520.