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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Defending champ HPU rated No. 4

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

When the Hawai'i Pacific volleyball team takes to the court for its season opener tomorrow against St. Martin's (Wash.), it will bring with it the weight if not the respect of last year's 28-0 season, which ended in the program's second national championship in three years.

Yet, despite getting more than twice as many first-place votes than any other team in the preseason AVCA Division II Coaches Top 25 Poll, the Lady Sea Warriors will enter the 2001 campaign with a relatively low No. 4 preseason ranking.

No. 1 West Texas received five first-place votes but amassed 779 total points. No. 2 North Alabama (six first-place votes) received 777 points, followed by No. 3 Augustana (3) with 776. HPU (13) tallied 751 points.

"Obviously some of the rankers don't believe in what we can do," said HPU head coach Tita Ahuna. "That may give us a little extra motivation, but we're really not concerned with rankings, especially in the preseason. If we perform the ranking will take care of itself."

Voters may have been skeptical of HPU's prospects this season given the loss of All-Americans Susy Garbelotti, Debbie Sant'Anna and Kristi Lezchuk. But Ahuna says she's more than comfortable with this year's roster, which features two-time All-America setter Nia Tuitele, four other senior returnees and a promising set of newcomers.

"We have a lot of work we need to do but the girls have a great attitude and they've been giving 110 percent every day when they step on the court," Ahuna said.

"I think there's a lot of pressure to do well, but we try to take that off of them by telling them that this is a whole new team and a whole new season," she said. "What happened last year is the past and we have to make our own mark."

Once again, the Sea Warriors' fortunes will be foretold by the play of the Tuitele. As a freshman, Tuitele became the first HPU player to post 1,000 assists in a season, a feat she's repeated the last two years. Tuitele, who graduated this month with a degree in visual communications, is on pace to become one of the top 10 assist leaders in Division II history.

"We have to rely on her," Ahuna said.

The Sea Warriors will also rely on PacWest All-Star Roberta Robert, who averaged 2.6 kills per game last year, best among the returnees. Fellow senior Summer Castillo, whom Ahuna said has been the most consistent player in the practice, will also figure prominently in HPU's attack.

Senior Andrea Wean will inherit the starting spot at middle blocker. The 6-foot-2 Wean finished last season with 74 blocks and a .382 attack percentage.

In the back row, 5-3 senior Kea Wong is expected to be back at close to full strength following off-season reconstructive knee surgery.

The newcomers include outside hitters Teisa Fotu, Katy Wilson and Linge Pula, and middle blocker Helena Ward.

"The girls are learning the system and they're coming along," Ahuna said. "What's nice is that the returnees are helping a lot. There's that cohesiveness, that bonding on and off the court that you like to see as a coach.

HPU plays St. Martin's tomorrow night at 7:30 at St. Andrews Priory.