By Taylor Viles – Sports Editor
The men’s volleyball team is currently in the midst of its most successful season in five years. It’s the team’s first full season since 2019, and the first full season as head coach for Jeff Vautrin (‘17).
Diving into the roster, fans will see the team is made up primarily of first-years and juniors. Look closer and find four teammates who all hail from the state of Hawaii. Those players are junior Jesus Garcia, and first-years Zak Burkett, Lee Naea, and Carter Phillips.
Hawaii is known for its volleyball, the same cannot be said about Boston. “Hawaii just has so many Olympians and division one all-Americans that go back home after they’re done playing and they start to coach,” said Vautrin. “[In Hawaii] you’ve got to be a part of the community, no matter who you are, no matter how much of a big wig you are… I think that’s the big reason why they have such success over there.”
How did four promising volleyball players get persuaded to move over 5,000 miles away from home to play for a Division III college where their sport is less popular?
The answer? Coach Vautrin.
“Jeff is really good at recruiting people, it’s incredible,” said backup setter Burkett. “He is just very young and I feel like he can talk to us like a normal dude. He’s very chill. Obviously, that’s attractive to a young dude playing division three college volleyball.”
Vautrin grew up spending summers in Hawaii with a childhood friend before reconnecting with the islands during his time at Lasell. During an alumni weekend, Vautrin met Hawaii native Micah Aiu (‘11). The two connected right away and it was the beginning of a friendship that the volleyball team continues to benefit from today, as Aiu has been instrumental in finding recruits to help send Vautrin’s way.
Following his graduation, Vautrin moved out to Hawaii to continue following his volleyball dream and coach at a premier club in Honolulu. He was planning to coach the 17’s team (a volleyball club team made of 17-year-olds), recruiting players like Garcia and future two-year Laser Charles Lavoie. But then Lasell came calling again and the young coach moved back to Auburndale to become an assistant coach. He left the team in good hands as his friend Aiu took over the reins.
This was how the relationship between Hawaii and Lasell began. Vautrin made sure to recruit Garcia and Lavoie (who has since left for California) once they finished high school and eventually secured three more recruits for the Lasers’ 2022 season.
“Once I came here, I realized this is like where I want to be,” said star setter Garcia, who sits second in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) in assists with 648.
Garcia has been playing since he was four years old and it’s easy to see how his tremendous ability is positively affecting his team. Vautrin says this is no coincidence.
“I try to recruit certain positions from certain areas [of the country],” he said. “Typically, Hawaiian volleyball players have really good ball control, really high volleyball IQ and they’ve been coached really well for a long amount of their life.”
Burkett, who is likely to take over primary setting duties once Garcia graduates, displays good court visibility and knows how to “perfectly set up” his teammate Phillips for a spike. The two have been playing together since high school and when Vautrin was trying to recruit Burkett, the high school senior made sure Vautrin looked at his teammate.
When Vautrin saw Naea play for the first time, he knew he was special. “If you see Lee jump it’s pretty spectacular. So once I saw him jump, I was like ‘I’ll start talking to this guy.’”
Naea said he was nervous when he came to Lasell, but soon realized he could look to his other three Hawaiian teammates if he needed a reminder of home. “Having those three core [guys] makes it a lot easier because I can kind of be myself around them,” said Naea.
The four Hawaiian players along with talents like junior Jan Baranowski, and first-years Jordan Shinaut, Theo Zaharewicz, and Alex Weinhaus, give the Lasers one of the best rosters in the GNAC sitting top three with a 11-2 conference record.
Vautrin said he is expecting at least one more Hawaiian recruit to join his team next season and will continue to find talent from the islands in the future. “We’re looking forward to continuing that pipeline,” he said.