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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 31, 2001

UH football, Jones' crash dominated Hawai'i sports

Advertiser Staff

1 UH football season
2 June Jones' accident
3 Akebono retires
4 UH baseball
5 Wahine volleyball
6 Cal Lee retires
7 UH men's basketball
8 Michelle Wie
9 Kahuku football
10 Sept. 11
No two sports years are ever exactly alike, but 2001 truly was unique in Hawai'i as events outside the sidelines greatly affected the action inside the lines.

A near-fatal auto accident. A state-wide public school teachers strike. And of course, Sept. 11.

In the end, though, it was a magical football season that stood out as the story to remember — at least according to votes cast by members of The Advertiser sports staff.

Coming off a disappointing 3-9 campaign, hopes were high in Manoa for a return to winning ways. The Warriors achieved that and more, and did it in spectacular fashion.

Here's a closer look at a season worthy of reflection, as well as the year's other top sports stories:

1. UH football season

A season that looked bleak after the Warriors fell to 1-2 and lost their starting quarterback suddenly came to life behind a once-benched quarterback.

Nick Rolovich, a starter at the beginning of the 2000 season only to lose the job to Tim Chang, went 8-1 in 2001 and took fans along for a fun ride.

UH beat two nationally ranked teams on national TV.

A last-second pass from Rolovich to Ashley Lelie lifted UH over then-No. 18 Fresno State, 38-34, and an eight-touchdown pass performance by Rolovich helped the Warriors whip previously unbeaten and Bowl Championship Series hopeful Brigham Young, 72-45.

In the final three games, Rolovich passed for at least 500 yards each time.

"When I took this job in 1999, this is what I envisioned happening — the sellout crowd, and us playing football like we're playing now," Jones said after the BYU victory.

But the 9-3 record didn't bring the Warriors a bowl game, and UH president Evan Dobelle tried to put together a 13th game. But that request was denied by the NCAA.

No biggie.

"You can't top the BYU game," said slotback Craig Stutzmann. "No other regular-season game can top that."

2. June Jones accident

The news on Feb. 22 sent shock waves across the state and throughout the Mainland football community: UH coach June Jones crashed his car into a concrete pillar off the H-1 freeway and was unresponsive as medical personnel took him into the ambulance.

Jones suffered a skull fracture, chest and abdominal injuries and underwent two two-hour surgeries that night to control internal bleeding. He was in critical but stable condition as the state held a vigil for the man credited with lifting Hawai'i's spirits during tough economic times.

The Queen's Medical Center was so overwhelmed by callers checking on Jones' condition that the hospital asked that people stop calling. James Lofton, No. 9 in NFL career pass receptions, offered his prayers. So did former Atlanta Falcons Steve Bartkowski and Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. Even the NFL commissioner's office telephoned.

Hundreds of people stopped by the State Capitol to sign a giant get-well banner sponsored by a radio station.

Jones, a former UH athlete who turned down a lucrative coaching offer from the San Diego Chargers in 1998 to take over a Rainbows program coming off an 0-12 season, had an affect on Hawai'i that went beyond football.

"June has shown great respect for local people and local culture that means so much here," then-UH president Kenneth Mortimer said. "It's reflected in the respect that the community has for him."

Slowly but surely, Jones recovered. Spring practice went on without him, but he was back full time by the summer. The aches and pains continued through fall practice, but his determination to lead the Warriors was at 100 percent by the season opener on Sept. 8.

"I'll be ready to do everything I need to do," he said.

3. Akebono retirement

Sumo wrestler Akebono
"It's been 13 years since I've had a vacation. I think I'm going to take a couple of weeks off and sleep," said Chad Rowan, the sumo wrestler known as Akebono, after his retirement in September.

It was a history-making 13-year trek for the Kaiser High School graduate.

Along the way, Rowan became the first foreign-born grand champion in the centuries-old sport in 1993.

The quarter-ton yokozuna surprised the sumo world, announcing his retirement in January after winning a tournament in his previous outing. He said debilitating knee injuries forced him to step away.

It was the first time in nearly 80 years a yokozuna was able to retire after winning the last tournament in which he competed. His formal retirement ceremony took place before a sold-out crowd at the Kokugikan in Tokyo in September.

Overall, he won 11 championships and retired with a 566-198 record in sumo's top division.

4. UH baseball

Former UH baseball coach Les Murakami
In a tear-filled evening in May at Rainbow Stadium, the coach who built a program literally from rock bottom to national prominence said goodbye ... and thanks.

For the first time since his Nov. 2, 2000 stroke, which kept him away from coaching, retiring UH baseball coach Les Murakami made his first public appearance at the house that he visualized and built.

"I just want to thank everyone for showing up," Murakami's son, Robbie said, speaking on behalf of his family. "We're just honored that everyone came out tonight, to support us. Just a lot of good memories here. We're just thankful for everything the people of Hawai'i have given us."

The Rainbow Stadium crowd of 3,192 — the largest of the season — stood for the entire 20-minute ceremony and applauded as soon as Murakami and his family rode out in an electric car from the gates behind first base.

The family drove around the perimeter of the infield, as Murakami doffed his cap. The most touching moment came when daughter Kris handed her father his walking aid. Murakami then leaned slightly out and tapped the plate with it.

So ended an era in UH baseball.

In June, another began with the hiring of Georgia Tech's pitching coach and recruiting coordinator, Mike Trapasso.

In October, the university's Board of Regents approved changing the name of Rainbow Stadium to Les Murakami Stadium.

5. Wahine volleyball

Volleyball player Kim Willoughby
Their All-American decided to take a year off; an all-conference player decided not to return for her senior year, and a top recruit did not qualify academically.

Despite all the disruption, the Wahine rallied from a rough start, found themselves — or found Kim Willoughby as often as they could — and finished in style.

After a 3-4 start, the Wahine won 24 in a row and finished 29-6 after reaching the sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

It was not the most successful season for a program with four national championships and a history of regional appearances. But it might have been the unlikeliest regional rise in the Wahine's proud history.

"After we started 3-4," Shoji said, "I thought if we didn't coach hard and we didn't have kids who wanted to respond, it could have gone south real fast."

Willoughby, who was named a first-team All-American, made the spectacular seem routine. Margaret Vakasausau also thrived, winning the setter position in the third match and willing the Wahine to succeed with her unique blend of presence and pride.

"They've had a tremendous year," Shoji said. "They've been a great group of athletes to be around."

6. Cal Lee calls it quits

St. Louis coach Cal Lee
Ending the most remarkable era in Hawai'i high school football, St. Louis coach Cal Lee surprisingly announced in July that he would resign after the season, his 21st in a career that had seen unprecedented success in Hawai'i and brought national acclaim.

Lee's teams won 15 state or Prep Bowl championships in the past 18 years and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation.

Lee said he had been thinking about when he should quit for a long time, "even in 1990, when my son graduated, it seemed like a good time. Every year it's a question."

Now, he said, seems like "it's the right time."

"When you think about something so long, you feel a lot better when you finally make the decision," he said.

Pac-Five coach Don Botelho, the most-tenured Hawai'i prep football coach (37 seasons), said Lee has been instrumental in improving high school football here.

"You look at the three (consecutive) years that Ticky Vasconcellos (at Roosevelt from 1955-1957) and Cal Chai (at Kamehameha from 1974-1976) won titles, that was difficult," Botelho said. "How about 15? There's no comparison anyone can make for high school football in the state of Hawai'i."

Lee's final season ended with another ILH title (his 18th), and a second consecutive loss to Kahuku in the state championship game.

7. UH men's basketball

UH basketball players Troy Ostler and Nerijus Puida
A 2000-01 season that seemed on the brink turned magical as the Rainbows blended into one and became just the third men's basketball team in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament.

"I thought we were a good team during the preseason," Hawai'i coach Riley Wallace said. "But because we went through all the injuries and other stuff, we were never a complete team until the end."

Still, the Rainbows were idling along with a 10-12 record before the fairy tale season started to take shape.

Like all fairy tales, this one had several twists and turns, and perhaps even more sprains.

Four players, all starters at one time or another, missed games because of sprained ankles. Haim Shimonovich missed 22 games because of NCAA suspension. Another potential starter suffered a season-ending broken leg.

But by March, the sprained ankles healed and Shimonovich became eligible. A starting lineup had been solidified and the Rainbows were on their way.

The turning point of the season may have come on March 1, when Hawai'i defeated San Jose State on the road, 71-61.

"After we beat San Jose State, we knew anything was possible," captain Troy Ostler said.

That was proven in the WAC Tournament, where Hawai'i passed circles around three of the conference's top four teams in a three-day span. First, Texas Christian. Then rival Fresno State. Finally, hometown favorite Tulsa in overtime for the WAC championship.

UH finished 17-14, losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Syracuse.

The team got off to a good start this season, winning the Rainbow Classic and its first two WAC games.

8. Michelle Wie

Golfer Michelle Wie
She won the prestigious Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, the Hawai'i State Women Golf Association's Stroke Play Championship and qualified for the Manoa Cup.

She was only 11 years old.

Michelle Wie, then a Punahou sixth-grader, accomplished the unimaginable.

"The reporters kept asking me how young I was," she said. "They were (skeptical), I guess, that I'm only 11."

She stood 5 feet 9 and drove the ball 270 yards on the average.

She became the youngest to win the Jennie K. (she won by nine shots) in its 51-year history and the youngest to win the Stroke Play.

She also was the youngest, as well as the first female, to qualify for the Manoa Cup, which was first played 94 years ago.

9. Kahuku football

The Red Raiders entered the season as the first non-St. Louis team to be a defending state champion (official or mythical) since Pac-Five in 1986.

They were ranked No. 31 in the preseason by Student Sports, Inc. and justified that national acclaim by beating Utah 4A (highest class) runner-up Skyline of Salt Lake City 19-14 in the opener. Kahuku then proceeded to steamroll one O'ahu Interscholastic Association opponent after another en route to a fifth consecutive league championship.

The OIA's top challengers — Castle, Kailua and 'Aiea — fell by scores of 57-10, 49-7 and 48-0, respectively.

The machine kept rolling in the first and second rounds of the state tournament, with a 57-14 romp over Lahainaluna and a 21-7 victory over surprising Waimea.

Then came the state championship rematch against longtime nemesis St. Louis, a team which appeared to be peaking.

The Red Raiders proved 2000 was not a fluke, amassing 339 yards rushing in a 21-14 victory before 24, 841 fans at Aloha Stadium.

Kahuku, led by double-threat quarterback Inoke Funaki and quicksilver running back Mulivai Pula, ended up No. 13 in Student Sports' final national rankings.

10. Sept. 11

The date and the images will be ingrained in our minds forever: the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Sports were rendered insignificant, yet vital to the recovery of the nation.

In Hawai'i, games were postponed, trips were canceled, the UH soccer team was stranded for days on the Mainland. The NCAA suggested a streamlined travel policy for volleyball playoffs, preventing the UH Wahine team from playing host to a regional.

With the nation on high alert, security measures were implemented at sporting venues such as Aloha Stadium that impacted everyone.

Other significant stories

• Teachers' strike. Sports fell in limbo, in some cases for nearly four weeks. A 20-day Hawai'i State Teachers Association strike forced schedules to be condensed and state tournaments to be first canceled and then revised, resulting in four tournaments being squeezed into the same weekend.

Teams were given about a week of preparation time once the strike ended April 25. The O'ahu Interscholastic Association was inactive for 26 days.

• Youth baseball teams conquer world. Three Hawai'i youth baseball teams captured world titles.

The O'ahu team beat Jefferson Parish (La.) for the Babe Ruth (13- to 15-year-olds) World Series title in Hamilton, N.J.

Maui beat a team from Seoul, South Korea, 11-4, for the P.O.N.Y. Bronco (11- to 12-year-olds) World Series title in Monterey, Calif.

'Aiea beat Venezuela, 6-5, for the Junior League (13- to 14-year- olds) World Series title in Taylor, Mich.

• Brian Viloria. After a stellar amateur career that saw him become a world champion and the first Hawai'i boxer to become an Olympian in 44 years, the Waipahu boxer made his pro debut at the Hawai'i Convention Center on May 15. Viloria was awarded a unanimous decision over Ben Jun Escobia of the Philippines in a four-round fight. Despite breaking his hand in his impressive debut, Viloria went on to win twice more.

• Baseball draftees. Fifteen players with Hawai'i ties were taken in the major league baseball draft, the most ever from the Islands. Leading the way was Bronson Sardinha, a Kamehameha shortstop who signed with the New York Yankees for a $1 million bonus after becoming the highest Hawai'i high school draft pick ever (34th overall). Another high school player, St. Louis pitcher Brandon League, was drafted in the second round (59th overall).

• Wahine cross country. Cheryl Smith finishes 15th out of a field of 255 runners in the NCAA Division I championships. The top 15 finish officially made Smith an All-American, the first time a UH runner has been recognized with that status. Earlier, Smith and Casey McGuire-Turcotte finish 1-2 in the WAC cross country championships.

• Aloha, bowls. For the first time in 20 years, Hawai'i is left without a postseason bowl game when both the Aloha and O'ahu bowls are moved to the Mainland. It would eventually prove costly for the UH football team, which finished with a 9-3 record, upsetting two nationally ranked teams along the way, but still couldn't get a bowl invitation.

• Wahine basketball mania. With the Stan Sheriff crowds getting larger with each postseason victory, the UH Wahine beat Santa Clara, Brigham Young, then Oklahoma State, the latter game before 4,279 fans, to advance to the final four of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. The Wahine season ended with a loss at New Mexico in the semifinals.

• ILH football classification. Damien's threat to forfeit rather than play powerhouse St. Louis forces the ILH to form a classification system for the first time in the league's 92 years of existence.