Wahine's optimism brings them to NCAA semifinal
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, Calif. In the beginning, while everyone talked of what was wrong in the University of Hawai'i's unique volleyball universe, the Wahine talked only of what was right.
Look who is talking now.
Hawai'i (29-5) has won 26 of its last 27 going into tomorrow's NCAA West Region semifinal against UCLA (20-8), here at The Pyramid. It is seeded ninth to the Bruins' eighth. The winner gets a shot at No. 1 Long Beach State (30-0) or No. 16 Northern Iowa (30-1) Friday and the final four.
In the 21-year history of NCAA women's volleyball, the Wahine have advanced to 18 regionals and won three championships. The postseason is their winter home.
But realistically, how many expected them to be here after what they lost from last year's final-four team? Three all-conference players, including All-American Lily Kahumoku, are gone and the national high school player of the year never showed. The Wahine don't have a starter this season who started in the same position last season.
"The talent level is definitely down from the last three years," UH coach Dave Shoji said, "but the effort and winning is (up) ... I thought we would struggle to win. I expected to win, but I thought we would struggle in a lot of games. I almost expected to lose one here and there, but we never did."
When the Wahine went from pretender to contender is a matter of debate. Most players insist they knew they would be here in August.
"If I am honest, I can say August," sophomore Maja Gustin said. "I know our personalities, who we are. For every single person, I knew that person had so much more to give, but it wasn't there because we weren't together. I knew somehow deep inside we could be in the Sweet 16."
Tanja Nikolic, Hawai'i lone senior, agreed. She said her faith was justified opening weekend.
"I knew in Stockton because we lost to Nebraska and Wisconsin and we played bad and were close," Nikolic said. "That just showed me how good we are, it was a matter of putting it all together.
"I wish we had Nebraska every time because that's how you get better. Every point matters."
Junior setter Margaret Vakasausau wasn't convinced until she looked into her teammates' eyes between Games 2 and 3 of their third match. Hawai'i was 0-2, and down two games to Kansas State at the time.
"I said, 'Play with guts right now you guys, and we're going to win this,'" Vakasausau recalled. "That's when I knew. I looked in everybody's eyes and everybody wanted it and we just seemed to do it.
"When the 15th point dropped (in the fifth game), I knew we were going to make it to the final eight."
The coaches were more pragmatic. They took more convincing, and began to explore options on what was a virtually depth-less team, simplifying the offense.
Vakasausau has started every game since her halftime plea against Kansas State. It was the first dramatic move and Vakasausau's innate gift for leadership immediately paid huge dividends.
Gustin, an honorable mention All-American at middle blocker as a freshman, started this season playing middle and outside. The switch and added complication of a hybrid position were too much. Nikolic soon moved to the right side and Gustin now hits purely on the left, where she's averaging four kills a game.
Nikolic has since lost her position to Jennifer Carey, the starting setter the last two years and now a surprisingly dangerous hitter and competent passer.
Still, Hawai'i was 3-4 after losing to Top-10 teams UCLA and USC. And Santa Clara, another ranked team, came to town after the Sept. 11 tragedies.
Kim Willoughby pounded a school-record 35 kills in a four-game victory the first night. Hawai'i hammered the Broncos the next. Nohea Tano started for the first time, and proved to be the anchor of what was already an exceptionally quick team.
"Hedder (Ilustre), Mess (Melissa Villaroman), Nohea, Lauren (Duggins), Kim, Maggie ... those are thoroughbreds," associate coach Charlie Wade said. "How many times do they get a defensive wow out of you?"
The Santa Clara smashing started Wade and assistant coach Kari Anderson thinking this season could be special. Regionals became a realistic expectation and, with a little more magic and Willoughby's outrageous talent, beyond.
"I remember when we were 3-4, and down 10-6 in the first game against Cincinnati (Sept. 8)," Wade recalled. "We called time and I remember just going ... whew, man. I was trying to weigh how things would turn out and remember the next day thinking realistically, almost pessimistically, we could end up with nine or 10 losses.
"It turns out we were just really good on the road all year. And obviously the addition of Margaret setting and Nohea in the middle, and becoming a more traditional lineup allowed them to settle down and start playing better. Everyone seemed to complement each other."
Shoji was the last to truly believe. He was convinced Oct. 20 at Fresno when, hours after winning at San Jose State in five, the Wahine crushed a good Fresno State team.
"Then," Shoji said, "I started to get an inkling it was more than just an ordinary team."
Despite two cancellations, the Wahine could be just the third team to win 30 matches this season. They are one of nine teams to even have the opportunity. Three months ago, even the players might not have made that prediction.
"We've developed," Vakasausau said, "into something that's amazing right now."
QUICK SETS: The Hawai'i-UCLA match has been moved up half an hour, to a 3 p.m. HST start tomorrow. Long Beach State and Northern Iowa will follow. ... KCCN (1420 AM) will broadcast all Wahine matches live. ... The UH-UCLA match will be televised live on K5.