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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 30, 2001

Sophomore hitter carries Olympic-sized expectations

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

By all early appearances, Kim Willoughby holds the University of Hawai'i Wahine volleyball fate in her hands. She is one of a rare breed who can incite a crowd simply by approaching the ball.

Can you dig it? Kim Willoughby can. And she can hit it, too. But the challenge for the Louisiana native is to do it consistently every match as the Wahine try to crawl back from an 0-2 start.

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"I look at her and think Teee Williams, Tara Cross," Nevada coach Devin Scruggs says, finding Willoughby a place in Olympic air space.

"If she puts her mind to it," UH associate Charlie Wade adds, "she'll be playing with Robyn (Ah Mow) and Heather (Bown) in Athens (site of the 2004 Olympics)."

Hawai'i coach Dave Shoji sees his ubiquitous sophomore hitter as the difference between an indifferent season — by Wahine standards — and something special. "If she has a good year, then we'll be competitive in the Top 10," he says.

But the Wahine are 0-2 entering tomorrow's Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Classic. It is a losing streak of epic proportions for a program that hasn't lost more than two matches in nine seasons.

Willoughby clearly is in charge of turning it around. There are great expectations for someone far from the Cajun comfort of home and not yet 21.

Sandy Fussell, Willoughby's coach at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, La., first saw her in the seventh grade. Immediately, Fussell knew Willoughby would start for her two years later.

In four years, Fussell estimates Willoughby touched "the first ball and the last ball 95 percent of the time." Wade, who first wrote Willoughby when she was the youngest on the 1998 junior national team, remembers watching his first Willoughby video and "laughing with Dave 30 seconds into it" because she was so outrageously talented.

She never played club ball and couldn't tear herself away from basketball and track, but Willoughby came to Manoa with "exceptional fundamentals." Wade credits Fussell, who insists Willoughby helped teach her when she returned from the national program.

"Kim was an athlete," Fussell says. "A coach shouldn't take a whole lot of credit when you coach the talent she possessed. I hope I had something to do with teaching her the game, but ... my biggest contribution to Kim was more of an adjustment socially and emotionally to do the right things as a high school athlete, make sure she did the right things in the classroom."

Fussell found in Willoughby "a tremendous personality that's so genuine," and remembers children from all over Louisiana flocking to her. But, silently, she hoped Willoughby would leave Louisiana, believing a new environment would help her grow.

So did Willoughby.

"I could go to every house any night in Napoleonville and, no problem, I was home everywhere," Willoughby said. "I was like a little kid in a candy store. Everything I wanted, I could get. Here, whatever you want, you have to work for."

Wade, who went to see Willoughby four times within a year, describes Napoleonville as "way out in the Bayou," 75 miles from New Orleans, with sugar cane fields as far as the eye can see. He also remembers a table-full of crayfish, a warm welcome and Willoughby's heartfelt verbal commitment July 5, 1999, while he and Shoji made a home visit.

She had earlier leaned toward Long Beach State — where her cousin, Olympian Danielle Scott, played. But Wade's persistence, and a memorable first visit when her high school assistant coach called Wade "the cutest guy on the face of the earth," eventually swayed Willoughby. Her final decision was based on something more substantial.

"I watched how he coached, warmups and all," Willoughby said. "I thought, he can make me being in Hawai'i, away from home, the best time of my life.

"When I came here on my recruiting trip I was at home already."

That's not to say she doesn't miss home. Willoughby hasn't seen her mother since Christmas and Lula Mae has rarely seen her daughter play. She was too busy working early in Kim's career, then was paralyzed in an accident when Kim was a junior. All she has seen since are a few videos.

"Kim talks to her mom a lot," says Wahine teammate Melody Eckmier, who formed a fast friendship with Willoughby. "She talks about her mom a lot. It's hard for her to be so far away."

But, without Kim home to "baby her," Lula Mae has started walking again. "The way things are going," Willoughby says, "she'll be out here someday."

This season started with a million mysteries, including three first-year starters and a totally revamped offense. The only mystery surrounding Willoughby is if she can fulfill her vast promise and thrive in the glare of the country's most demanding fans, and opponents who will increasingly seek her out.

Wade believes it's "impossible" to ask her to do too much.

"You can't set her twice in the same rally," he says. "I don't know if we can ask her to do too much and even if we did, she learns so fast she's just going to pick it up."

Last weekend, against two top-four teams, Willoughby provided nearly half the Wahine offense. She's averaging six kills a game — twice as much as last year, when she was the Western Athletic Conference co-Freshman of the Year with teammate Maja Gustin. As Gustin makes the complicated transition to a new position, Willoughby's impact will be more critical.

She collected a dozen double-doubles (10-plus kills and digs) last season. The Wahine might need twice that this year. Willoughby was a two-time state player of the year in volleyball and basketball in high school. Hawai'i might need a more dynamic performance now.

Physically, there is little question she can deliver.

"She's got that jump-out-of-the-gym straight-down shot down real well," Scruggs says.

Recalls Eckmier: "Kim told me when I first came here that, 'If someone blocks me, I'm going to make sure they can feel it, it hurts.' I do feel it."

But the answer for Hawai'i lies in Willoughby's search to conquer the game's nuances, control her emotions as demands multiply, and flourish in a situation that threatens to suffocate.

Can she hit for a high percentage? Pick the smart shot when 7,000 people would rather she just pound? Play well nearly every moment? Mature gracefully when she is still struggling with such a dramatic transition?

Willoughby was the bright spot in the midst of the Wahine's frustration last weekend. This week, Hawai'i will see what comes next.

"I need to be big every night," Willoughby says. "I'm prepared for it, I can do the job, but I need help from everybody else. I love my teammates so much because they are always there. I can count on them."