When Colton Cowell stepped on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus a true freshman out of Maui’s King Kekaulike High School, all he wanted to do was make the men’s volleyball team.
Six seasons later, the former walk-on will exit as one of the program’s most decorated players and a fan favorite through and through.
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Cowell, who initially earned a walk-on spot on the roster for the Rainbow Warriors, played sparingly during his freshman season in 2016 and redshirted in 2017. After seeing the court in a backup role at outside hitter in 2018, his true emergence came in the 2019 season when he started 28 matches and earned a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament team. In 2020, Cowell was named a second-team AVCA All-American.
“I want to inspire a lot of young athletes and a lot of undersized, underrecruited athletes that look and see me play at the Division I level and my hope for them now is that this is just something that they can connect to and they feel a sense of purpose, maybe in their own lives to pursue their dreams and not give up on themselves,” the 6-foot-1 Cowell said.
Since Cowell has been a regular starter for Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors have gone 56-4 over the last three seasons. Still, the program is in search of its first national championship. UH won the 2002 NCAA tournament but was later stripped of the title after Costas Theocharidis was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and became the subject of an investigation.
The ‘Bows appeared primed for at least an appearance in the 2020 national championship game until the COVID-19 pandemic put a premature end to a 15-1 season. At the time, Cowell initially balked at the notion of coming back in 2021, saying he wasn’t sure how well a sixth year of college volleyball would serve his career aspirations. But along with stars Rado Parapunov and Patrick Gasman, Cowell ultimately decided to exercise his right to use an extra year of eligibility and is finishing up a master’s degree.
From where he began his collegiate volleyball career to where he is now, Hawaii head coach Charlie Wade marvels at the progress Cowell in particular has made over the years.
“I don’t think I could have predicted just how far he’s come,” Wade said. “One of the Northridge coaches asked me that same question last week. They’re just so impressed watching his film and watching how he’s come and they’re like, ‘Did you know he was going to be this good?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think any of us could’ve predicted it.’
“It just speaks to his character and how hard he’s worked.”
The 2021 UH men’s volleyball team is currently 13-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. On Friday and Saturday, the ‘Bows will host UC Irvine at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center, with the series finale as senior night. The program will honor its program mainstays in Cowell, Parapunov, Gasman, Gage Worlsey, James Anastassiades and Jackson Van Eekeren.
As Cowell looks back to the times when he wasn’t owed anything as a walk-on, he welcomes the pressure that has come with trying to win Hawaii that elusive title for the past three years. To him, it certainly beats the pressure of trying to make the team to begin with.
“There was a lot of significant doubt that was constantly there. There’s still is at times. There’s still moments where I step onto the floor and I remember my journey and the beginning of my journey when I was just 145 pounds. But I think that doubt and that pressure that I felt, I think now I’ve learned to interpret that as a privilege,” Cowell said. “I’ve earned the right to feel the pressure and to try to embrace that and to see it as opportunity and look to overcome it and throughout these years, my goal has been to prove to myself that I’m capable of performing at the highest level.”