Wahine volleyball team seeking to spread offense
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
SAN JOSE In the high-tech heart of the Silicon Valley, the University of Hawai'i Wahine are hoping to enter a new volleyball dimension the next few days. Something beyond the one-dimensional prototype that has lifted them to a No. 11 national ranking and 20 straight victories.
Sure sophomore Kim Willoughby has been playing on another planet. And absolutely, the top-seeded Wahine should win this revived WAC Tournament, which opens for them today against eighth-seeded Tulsa (8-14).
But Hawai'i's focus goes far beyond the conference opponents it has clobbered since joining the WAC in 1996. The NCAA Tournament begins in two weeks and the Wahine (23-4) have not taken a game off a team ranked ahead of them all season.
They need to know how far they have come since their last Top-10 opponent 10 weeks ago. Most critically, they need to know how much more help Willoughby now has.
"Hawai'i is not a typical national power where it has a whole bunch of people to go to," San Jose State coach Craig Choate says. "They've got a great hitter, but outside of the WAC there are a lot of bigger teams. Kim will still be good, but Kim is not all-world then. Nebraska, for example, has a lot of people who can do the same thing.
"This is not rocket science, but Lily (Kahumoku) not coming back hurt them incredibly. If they had those two outside, they would be really scary."
With Kahumoku and her All-American game taking the year off for personal reasons, Hawai'i has improvised. Maja Gustin, a potential All-American in the middle, joined Willoughby on the left.
The transition has been tough, but Gustin never gets cheated on a swing and she's averaging nearly four kills a game, hitting .293. Willoughby has been other-worldly, at a national-best seven kills a game, hitting .349. The dynamic duo is responsible for two-thirds of the Wahine offense.
At this point of the season, Hawai'i won't stop feeding its terminators, but it will have to take pressure off by creating a legitimate diversion. That has to come from middles Lauren Duggins and Nohea Tano and right-side hitter Jennifer Carey, who will start today.
The Wahine have worked throughout the WAC season to modify their liberal left-side look. They have undergone a massive makeover, with only Willoughby and Duggins starting at their original positions.
Some believe they have come further than others, possibly including the Wahine.
"The best thing about Hawai'i," Nevada coach Devin Scruggs says, "is that when you have two dominant outside hitters like they have, whether you pass well or not you can always get the ball to the impact hitters. When you have two dominant middles, if you don't pass well your strength is taken away.
"Their weakness ... I don't think their other hitters are weaknesses, but for some reason I don't feel like they trust their other hitters enough. When they did go to their other hitters against us they were very successful. They need to trust that they can set the other hitters."
Shoji believes the trust is there, but also confesses to pragmatism.
"Obviously we can't go to the left 100 percent of the time," he says. "But our chances of getting a kill out there are greater than going to the middle or right. We've got to find a percentage where we get the most out of them Êprobably something like 3-to-1 or 4-to-1, enough so everybody has to honor it (the middle and the right). That's really what we'd like to accomplish."
The Wahine have this week to do it. After that, their volleyball landscape will take on a whole new look.
All Hawai'i times
Tulsa def. Boise St., 30-21, 27-30, 23-30, 30-25, 15-10.
UTEP def Louisiana Tech, 30-27, 30-18, 30-11.
Tulsa vs. Hawai'i, 11 a.m.
Rice vs. Fresno State, 1 p.m.
SMU vs. San Jose State, 4:30 p.m.
Nevada vs. UTEP, 6:30 p.m.
Hawai'i-Tulsa winner vs. Rice-Fresno State winner, 3 p.m.
SMU-San Jose State winner vs. Nevada-UTEP winner, 5 p.m.
Championship, 11 a.m.