Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 24, 2001

Ready or not, Wahine open against Nebraska

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

STOCKTON, Calif. — Here, in the land of levees, the Asparagus Festival and "Must si TV," the University of Hawai'i Wahine volleyball team is in search of itself.

Coach Dave Shoji will lead an inexperienced Wahine team into tonight's season opener against Nebraska.

Advertiser library photo • December 2000

It is 75 miles east of San Francisco, in the state's largest inland seaport, with nothing to do but watch the pickups cruise Pershing Avenue and — tonight — play Nebraska in the State Farm Classic.

The Cornhuskers ended Hawai'i's 2000 season in the final four and went on to become only the second unbeaten NCAA champion. They are nearly everyone's pick to defend, with four returning All-Americans.

They are not UH coach Dave Shoji's ideal season-opening opponent, as he rushes an inexperienced squad into an entirely new offense to compensate for ominous offseason losses. Setter Jennifer Carey is the only Wahine who has started more than one collegiate season; Lauren Duggins and Melody Eckmier started one match — combined — before tonight.

After two weeks of two-a-day practices, Shoji has no clue how his fifth-ranked team will do in this tournament, which also features fourth-ranked Wisconsin and 12th-ranked host Pacific.

"I have no idea until tomorrow (tonight)," Shoji said. "If we don't pass the ball, it could get ugly. But if we get the ball anywhere near the net, we can be effective.

"The only fear I have is a total passing breakdown. That would make us have to set the ball really high. Then their block could be very, very effective. But the rest of our game is solid. I don't think our young players will back down."

That would be an improvement over the last time these teams played. In the NCAA semifinals nine months ago, Nebraska stuffed every Wahine but All-American Lily Kahumoku, who is home in Alabama today, sitting out her junior season. Hawai'i was never in sync that night, and still had an opportunity to pull it out.

 •  Radio/TV

1:45 p.m. today, 1420 AM
4 p.m. tomorrow, ESPN2 (delayed)

That, and the immense pressure the Cornhuskers take into this season, offer UH hope. The Wahine say it is much more. They pleaded for "two more minutes" in yesterday's time-monitored practice and are adamant about eliminating the "loser image" they insist everyone has thrust upon them.

"Everyone is focusing on who we are, who we don't have, who we're playing," says UH sophomore Kim Willoughby. "We know that we're good. Even though we don't have the big guns like a lot of other people, we don't have 6-foot-2 across the net every time ... but we have who we have and we see in practice how hard we go.

"That's our No. 1 goal. Everyone wants to win a national championship, but our No. 1 goal is to play hard and never give up. If we have that type of mentality, we're definitely going to win a national championship."

Hawai'i won its second national title here, in Spanos Center, 19 years ago. There have been two more since. A fifth this season would be the biggest surprise of all, maybe to everyone but the Wahine.

They have dynamic players in Willoughby and Maja Gustin, another sophomore, and a proven setter in Carey. But everyone else is a mystery at this point. Unless, the Wahine say, you have been to a practice.

"Our team this year, it's amazing," says Gustin, who played internationally in Slovenia. "It's amazing what kind of spirit we have. In my whole career, I never played with a team with such positive energy, such a good spirit. When you watch us on the court, you can see just one heart, one goal, one person."

It remains to be seen if the Wahine can keep that emotional attachment when balls are blocked back in their face, passes fall untouched and sets sail wide. They will finally get a gauge on their true talent this weekend. More critically, they will discover if this singular heartbeat is sincere.

QUICK SETS: Nebraska returns four starters and Nancy (Meendering) Metcalf, who sat out last year after two All-American seasons. She gives the Cornhuskers four All-Americans, including 2000 AVCA Player of Year Greichaly Cepero. ... Wisconsin lost the NCAA championship to Nebraska last December in a five-game final. The Badgers return two All-Americans in Lizzy Fitzgerald and Sherisa Livingston, but Livingston did not travel. She is awaiting academic clearance for the season. ... Wisconsin also lost Big Ten Freshman of the Year Claudia Rodriguez, who left the team last month to return to Mexico. ... Pacific has a new coach in Jayne McHugh. UOP's former associate coach was promoted last month to replace John Dunning, who became Stanford's head coach. The Tigers return four starters, including sophomore Jennifer Joines, a second-team All-American. ...

The Wahine traveled with just 10 players, which forced them to use some imagination during yesterday's scrimmage. Walk-on freshmen Ashley Watanabe and Megan O'Brian did not make the trip. Transfer Litiana Damuni, from Kahuku, has not been cleared to play. ... All the teams just came out with their media guides. Hawai'i would have had its out earlier, but had to change its cover from one that included Lily Kahumoku. Fortunately, the school shot one cover with Kahumoku and one without. ... This tournament was started seven years ago by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA). It is sponsored by State Farm Insurance. ... The Wahine's home opener is next Friday, against Kansas State, in the 14th annual Hawaiian Airlines Classic. ... Hawai'i has won its last 20 season openers.