Big Green volleyball brings player and coach ‘full circle’
Tara Hittle and Zoë Leonard have come full circle since Leonard first met her now-coach as a junior player in Hawai'i.
Growing up, every child who has ever played a sport has admired an older or professional player. While few ever meet their idols, even fewer have the opportunity to play for them. Zoë Leonard ’19, however, is one of the few playing for her childhood idol Tara Hittle, an assistant coach for the women’s volleyball team.
For the Hawai‘i native and self-proclaimed “gym rat,” volleyball has been a constant in her life. Her father Chris Leonard introduced her to volleyball and she started playing when she could walk.
The sport, she said, helped her grow close to her dad, who served as her coach.
“I went to practice with [my dad] every day after school from kindergarten until I started playing on my first team when I was six,” she said. “I was playing with a bunch of 12 year olds and I just kept at it.”
Leonard credited the tightly knit volleyball community in Hawai‘i with helping her stay involved and improving her game.
For Leonard, Hittle and Kanoe Kamana‘o, two former student athletes for the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, were her main inspirations.
Leonards’ father was not surprised. Because of how popular volleyball is in Hawai’i, he said his daughter was familiar with many of the Rainbow Wahine.
“For little girls growing up in Hawai‘i, [who] play volleyball, you certainly look up to the Wahine volleyball team,” Chris Leonard said. “They are rockstars. They play in front of 8,000 to 9,000 people a night and are on live television statewide.”
From 2004 to 2008, Hittle played volleyball and basketball at UH. She garnered several accolades, including Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and second team all-WAC honors, while playing libero, outside hitter and more.
Kamana’o also boasted a list of collegiate achievements while playing from 2003 to 2006 as setter. During her career at UH, she started every single match and was named WAC Player of the Year for three years straight.
Luckily for Leonard, her dad’s connections in the volleyball world helped her meet the team when she was 7 years old. Chris Leonard coached Ryan Tsuji, one of the former UH assistant coaches under head coach Dave Shoji, and managed to meet up with him and a handful of players that traveled to Leonard’s hometown of Hilo. Hittle was among the group of athletes. Chris Leonard remembered Leonard sitting on the side of the sand court at the Hilo Yacht Club to watch them play. In between games, he said, she wanted to bump the ball around.
Chris Leonard vividly remembers that between one of the games she was peppering with Hittle on the side. Although Hittle was hitting balls pretty hard at her, Zoë easily picked them up. When Tsuji told Hittle to “take it easy,” Hittle replied, “No, she can handle it.”
“I clung on to the fact that she was playing with me and I was having fun,” Leonard said. “Ever since then, I was No. 3 because [Hittle] was No. 3.”
With her father in volleyball and the community so tightly knit, Leonard kept in close contact with Hittle and the rest of the team. She traveled to O‘ahu to attend Hittle’s senior night game and received an autographed jersey.
Dedicating herself to playing volleyball competitively, however, was not an easy decision despite how much she enjoyed the game and the inspiration that Hittle provided. In order to pursue volleyball competitively, Leonard chose to give up dancing hula and swimming, which were also important extracurricular activities for her at the time.
While reminiscing on her experiences, she admitted to experiencing a period when she wanted to quit volleyball but decided against doing so when she received acceptances for United States training programs while she was in middle school.
“[That] was when I realized that yeah, [volleyball] was for me,” Leonard said.
Over the next few years, she continued progressing in volleyball with the Pilipa‘a Volleyball Club and Kamehameha Schools – Kea‘au, her high school team. Meanwhile, Hittle played professionally from 2010 to 2011 in Switzerland before accepting coaching positions at Doherty High School and Valor Christian High School in Colorado.
In high school, Leonard earned several accolades, including invitations to participate in the USA Women’s Junior A1 National Training Team. By her sophomore year, she also started receiving recruitment notifications. She chose to play for Dartmouth because of the program’s competitive nature and the school’s academic reputation.
In her first year with the women’s team, Leonard played libero in all 88 sets. She led the team with 284 digs and recorded 49 assists and 27 aces.
However, before she could get too comfortable, the Dartmouth women’s volleyball team announced a complete coaching change. Former head coach Erin Lindsey took a new position at the University of Illinois after five years with the Big Green. In April, Harry Sheehy, director of Athletics and Recreation, named Gilad Doron as Lindsey’s replacement, and two months later, Doron named Eyal Zimet, a former men’s volleyball player for UH, as the first of two assistant coaches for the team.
Before Hittle was announced in August as the second assistant coach, Leonard learned of Doron’s decision through her father. Chris Leonard received a call from Tsuji regarding Hittle’s new employment and immediately called his daughter.
She was struck by the circumstances, considering how well she already knew Hittle and the relative isolation of Dartmouth.
“I literally have this woman’s jersey hanging in my room,” Leonard said. “She’s never coached college before, but I thought it was super cool because I knew she was experienced.”
The news came as a surprise to Chris Leonard as well. He noted how amazing it is that Hittle, someone that Leonard has admired since she was a little girl, decided to work at Dartmouth, out of 334 Division I women’s teams.
“What are the odds? It was this full circle moment,” he said. “To be 5,000 miles away from home in college and still find this connection to tie her back to her childhood, it’s really unique and special.”
For Hittle, it’s been a whirlwind experience.
“I’ve always wanted to be a volleyball coach, a college coach more specifically,” she said. “When I got this job I looked up the roster just to see and was like ‘Zoë, I know that kid.’”
The team is currently 6-9 overall and 0-5 in conference play. After Stacey Benton ’17 tore her ACL earlier this season, Leonard stepped in to play setter for the team. In the opening Ivy League game against Harvard University, she recorded 12 assists and five digs.
This past weekend, she made nine assists and six digs against Yale University and 12 assists against Brown University. The team will look to improve its conference record this weekend when it hosts Cornell University and Columbia University on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Although the team has only been together for two months, Hittle said she enjoys working at Dartmouth.
“We’ve been extremely busy and as a new staff,” she said. “We’ve been trying to pick up all of the loose ends, figure out each other as a coaching staff, what we need to accomplish, and how we’re going to go about it.”
With over 10 years since their first meeting, the dynamic between Leonard and Hittle seems to have shifted from child and sports idol to friends, which is a unique relationship between player and coach.
“Tara and the girls on the team sometimes like to give me a hard time about the whole Tara-thing,” Leonard said. “One day, I saw Tara in Molly’s and she walked up and gave me her bill with her signature and said ‘Here’s an updated one.’”
The overall coaching transition, Leonard added, has been amazing because of the three new coaches’ experience as well as their ability to foster an improved team culture.
“I am excited that we have a younger female on staff. It’s a good piece to have, especially when it is someone as experienced and talented as [Hittle,] Leonard said. “Did little Zoë ever think this was going to happen? No, but I’m so excited.”