From the Pacific to the Heartland: Ball State men's volleyball's Hawaiian connection

<p>Junior libero Xander Pink (left), Head Coach Donan Cruz (middle) and Sophomore opposite hitter Keau Thompson (right) pose for a photo March 26 at Worthen Arena. The head coach and pair of players have helped lead Ball State men’s volleyball to a recent resurgence. Mya Cataline, DN</p>

Junior libero Xander Pink (left), Head Coach Donan Cruz (middle) and Sophomore opposite hitter Keau Thompson (right) pose for a photo March 26 at Worthen Arena. The head coach and pair of players have helped lead Ball State men’s volleyball to a recent resurgence. Mya Cataline, DN

The serene Pacific island of Guam — more than 7,000 miles west of the United States — was the setting for the start of Ball State head coach Donan Cruz’s volleyball journey. On the island’s postcard beaches and in its gyms, Cruz built a passion for the sport that eventually led him to a drastically different destination: Muncie, Indiana.

Despite its distance from the Pacific islands, Ball State is home to three natives of the faraway region. Junior Xander Pink and sophomore Keau Thompson joined their fellow Pacific Island native to add a unique chapter to the university’s rich men’s volleyball history.

In the decade prior to Pink’s arrival at Ball State in the fall of 2021, no Hawaiians donned the red and white. His commitment to the Cardinals, however, initiated an influx of the island volleyball culture that has sparked a resurgence in the illustrious program.

The 2022 season, which marked the debut for both Cruz and Pink, signaled the beginning of one of Ball State men’s volleyball’s finest stretches in recent memory. The campaign brought the Cardinals’ first Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) title in two decades and a trip to the NCAA national semifinals, and the following year yielded a second-consecutive conference crown.

Now, in the later stages of the 2024 season, Ball State and its Hawaiian core are positioned for a chance to three-peat as MIVA titleholders. 

“We’re feisty:” the Hawaiian volleyball identity

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Junior libero Xander Pink (left) and Sophomore opposite hitter Keau Thompson (right) pose for a photo before the game against Tusculum Jan. 13 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals won 3-0 against the Pioneers. Mya Cataline, DN

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2023 estimates, Hawaii’s body of 1.44 million residents ranks among the nation’s 15 smallest states by population. Despite its modest size, the state punches well above its weight on the volleyball court.

The islands’ volleyball fixation has yielded success on collegiate, professional and international scenes. At the NCAA level, the University of Hawaii men’s and women’s volleyball programs rank among the country’s top schools in total national championships, with each squad owning three titles. The state is also well established on the U.S. National Team rosters, with six Hawaiians representing the country in beach and indoor men’s volleyball.

“Hawaii volleyball is super huge,” Pink said. “It's one of the main sports we watch other than football and basketball.” 

Thompson describes the sport not as a hobby or activity, but as a genuine way of life for many Hawaiians.

“I feel like almost everyone you meet is playing volleyball in Hawaii, whether that's just on the beach or training for high school or club,” he said. 

Pink admits that Hawaiian volleyball players are often at a disadvantage relative to their mainland counterparts, due to being undersized and the difficulty associated with traveling to the contiguous states for tournaments. However, the O’hau native said he and his peers certainly compensate for what they lack with an unmatched resolve.

“We're feisty, we're scrappy, and we're always willing,” Pink said. “We're shorter than a lot of the mainland kids, but we put in that work on defense, and we put in that work on service and receive. We might not be the tallest, but we know how to move around on the court and work together.”

As a seasoned volleyball player and coach, Cruz has traveled the country for volleyball but has yet to see a similar passion for the sport outside of his home state.

“It is just an entirely different thing,” Cruz said. “I don't hate saying it because I grew up there, and that was the environment that inspired me to do what I'm doing now. It is not even comparable to see the volleyball culture there.”

As he approaches the end of his third year at the helm of the Cardinals, Cruz emphasized his intent to model his program — in part — on the example set in Hawaii. The leader of the red and white has already taken steps toward his goal by recruiting Pink and Thompson early in his tenure.

“I look at that and say ‘That's awesome,’ because it shows the passion around volleyball,” Cruz said. “If people embrace the sport the way I believe it can and should be, you see that it's special and it's a positive thing for all of us in the volleyball community.”

An immediate high school reunion

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Sophomore opposite hitter Keau Thompson hits the ball after it was served by Tusculum Jan. 12 at Worthen Arena. Thompson had nine digs in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Pink and Thompson both attended Punahou School, a Honolulu preparatory school renowned for its academics and athletics success — most notably, volleyball. Punahou’s boys volleyball program has captured each of the last 10 Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state titles.

“The pedigree that they're coming from is amazing,” Cruz said. 

The Hawaiian duo enjoyed immense success together during their high school and club volleyball careers, but when Pink, who was one year ahead of Thompson in school, committed to a university thousands of miles from their home island, their future together became unclear.

However, once Thompson drew interest from Cruz and the Ball State coaching staff, the dream of playing alongside his longtime friend grew more realistic. 

“It's just crazy, and sometimes it doesn't really hit me,” Thompson said. “But, sometimes I really think about it, and it's just crazy that we could potentially, by the time he graduates, be going on 10 years on the same team. I just think that's something super unique.”

After Pink helped Thompson acclimate to the area, which they both described as a process (mostly because of Indiana’s glaringly different climate), they were poised to open a new era of their volleyball experiences together. Their debut to open the 2023 season came in the most fitting setting imaginable: the University of Hawaii.

Though Ball State fell in the pair of matches against the Rainbow Warriors, who eventually finished as national runners-up, they described the trip as a rather memorable occasion. Both players competed on perhaps the most famous court in their home state and experienced the warm Hawaii volleyball reception once again.

“Being a freshman and getting to start that game and play against them at home was crazy,” Thompson said. “It just felt right to start my season like that. I felt like if I wanted to start off anywhere, I wanted to be home like in front of my home crowd with family and friends.”

Pink, who served as a University of Hawaii volleyball ball kid during his youth, said the experience was especially surreal because of his admiration for the program during his childhood.

Guam, Hawaii and Muncie: Donan Cruz’s story

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Ball State Men's Volleyball Head Coach Donan Cruz claps after the Cardinals score a point in NCAA Semifinals against Hawaii May 6 at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. Ball State lost to Hawaii 2-3. Amber Pietz, DN

The first chapter of Cruz’s volleyball story was set in Guam, and the plot is currently unfolding in East Central Indiana. The starting point and current location are just two steps along his journey, with several other destinations coming in between.

Cruz’s initial interest in athletics was sparked by his family, who had firm roots in basketball and volleyball. He picked up volleyball early in his childhood on the island and continued to excel in the sport once his family moved to Hawaii during his teenage years.

“It kind of seemed inevitable that I would somehow get linked up into volleyball,” Cruz said. “I then moved to Hawaii in my teenage years and picked up right where I left off. Guam was where my passion for volleyball really grew from.”

After his volleyball-filled childhood, Cruz enrolled at the University of Hawaii, which could have signaled the end of his playing career. However, he opted to transfer to Iowa-based Graceland University, where he participated in volleyball for three seasons (2004-2006) and met his eventual wife.

Though he spent some time back in his home region, his marriage anchored him and his family in the Midwest. In 2009, Cruz accepted an assistant women’s volleyball coaching position at Grand View University, an NAIA school in Des Moines, Iowa.

The budding coaching mind parlayed his initial position into a role as the men’s team head coach, a professional transition that yielded NAIA national titles in 2018 and 2021 and an eventual position at Ball State.

The Midwest is by no means a region acclaimed for its diversity. Just 0.1 percent of Hoosiers identify as Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, as reported in the 2023 Census estimates. Given the lack of representation around him, Cruz is proud to serve as a beacon for his identity.

“It's an amazing opportunity to be that person in the community and within our own university to share the values and culture that I was raised around,” Cruz said. “I see it as a cool opportunity to share my culture — the Hawaiian culture and Shamala culture on Guam — and share those values with others.”

For Pink and Thompson, the future is still to be determined, but they both asserted that the sport will forever be a cornerstone of their lives. 

“If I were to stay in volleyball, I would do semi-pro, and I'd want to play in Thailand or something,” Pink said. “My backup plan is to go back home and coach the kids, because I grew up coaching kids. I love teaching them, and I love raising them.”

Thompson does not have an exact destination in mind, but he is certain that his volleyball days will not end once he leaves Muncie.

“I don't know where I might go, but I definitely want to play for sure,” Thompson said. “I'm going to be playing because I live by volleyball.”

Contact Adam Altobella with comments on X @AltobellaAdam or via email at


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