Peniata playing big despite small stature

Junior setter/defensive specialist Malama Peniata has been playing more this year.

C.J. Spang

Don’t tell Minnesota volleyball’s Malama Peniata that size matters.

The 5-foot-8-inch setter/defensive specialist has held her own at the net this year even when staring across at women 6 inches taller than her.

“I don’t get overwhelmed by size,” Peniata said. “I know I can be just as good as the taller girls, I just have to work a little harder.”

That hard work has caught the coaches’ attention for three years.

The former walk-on from Plymouth has been a spark plug on a team loaded with talent.

For the past two seasons, Peniata has been used only in the back row because of her defensive abilities. She would always be replaced by someone taller when her position rotated to the net.

“This year, as a result of a recommendation from (assistant head coach) Dave Boos, we decided to try her out as a front-row player despite her size,” head coach Mike Hebert said. “We thought that whatever we would lose in blocking ability, we’d gain in her leadership and defensive skill.”

Even when the competition schemes to take advantage of her height, Peniata doesn’t let it bother her.

“I’m just focusing on the play and what my assignment is,” she said. “I have to accept the fact they will hit it over me and not let it upset me.”

She has proven the coaches right this season, holding her own on the court and becoming a catalyst for a team riddled with talent and leadership.

And she’s proven her ability on the national level, winning MVP honors at the Kansas State tournament.

But more important than the accolades she has earned are the respect and appreciation her team has for her.

“I know she’s always there and always giving her best,” senior All-American libero Paula Gentil said. “She never gives up. Sometimes I’m like, ‘What are you doing? There is no way you can get that ball,’ as she dives across the court. She just says, ‘I gotta go for it!’ “

Not only does Peniata lead by example, but also on the court she is recognized as a general by her coach because of her communication and ability to take charge.

Both Hebert and Gentil joked about how loud she is but admit that it makes a huge difference on the court.

“A lot of balls would drop if it weren’t for Malama,” Gentil said. “She clarifies early and makes sure people know what is happening.”

In her own defense, Peniata explained where her vocal volume comes from.

“Growing up in a family of 10, you have to be loud,” Peniata said. “I’ve done it my whole life whether I’m on the court or at home.”

Peniata’s all-out approach on the court has endeared her to her teammates.

“Attitude-wise,” Gentil said, “I wish we had 15 more Malamas on the team.”