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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2001

No. 6 Southern California in Wahine Challenge

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

In six previous Aston's Imua Wahine Challenges, the University of Hawai'i mowed down 18 consecutive volleyball opponents. This year, it might really be a challenge.

Last time UH saw Southern California was December, when both froze at the final four, and lost semifinals. Now, the Trojans are ranked sixth and the Wahine 10th. Cincinnati and Utah State are unranked but unintimidated, also coming off NCAA Tournament appearances.

The Wahine, who play Utah State tonight, are coming off their most consistent performance of the season, according to coach Dave Shoji. It was also their only loss last weekend, to seventh-ranked UCLA.

"It was by far our steadiest match," Shoji said. "I'm encouraged by that. And, I'm encouraged by Maja's (Gustin) offensive performance on the last night. So I am basically sticking with our alignment and personnel.

"We need to be more consistent. We've had up-and-down performances by just about everyone on the team. And, the big thing we need is more offense out of two positions."

That would be the middle, where first-year starters Lauren Duggins and Melody Eckmier are averaging two kills — combined — a game, and hitting sub-.200.

They aren't the only rookies trying to make a tough transition. USC, No. 2 in the preseason poll, starts five underclassmen and is coming off a five-game loss to third-ranked Wisconsin. The Aggies, minus much of their 2000 offense, just lost to 12th-ranked Colorado State. Cincinnati is the only unbeaten team here, and its victories came over Wyoming and San Francisco, hardly Top-20 threats.

A look at the Challenge teams:

No. 6 Southern California (1-1)

Volleyball magazine characterizes the Trojans' last two recruiting classes as the best in the country, but USC's most visible new face is coach Mick Haley, who guided the U.S. to a fourth-place Olympic finish last September. ... Waiting for Haley were four returning starters, including All-Americans April Ross (6-1 OH) and Jennifer Pahl (6-1 MB), the team's only senior. ... This year's Fab 50 recruits are Keao Burdine (6-1 OH), Emily Adams (6-5 MB) and Alicia Robinson (6-2 OH). ... Adams and Robinson are picking up where their fathers (Alvan and Truck) left off when they played together for the Phoenix Suns.

No. 10 Hawai'i (2-3)

With Margaret Vakasausau (5-8 Jr.) earning the setter position last week, Kim Willoughby (6-0 OH) and Maja Gustin (6-2 OH/MB) — last year's WAC Freshmen of the Year — are the Wahine's only returning starters. Three Top-10 opponents the first 10 days did not make the massive make-over easier. ... The Wahine's hitting and blocking are down 30 percent from last season. Willoughby (5.33 kpg) and Gustin (3.28) are the only players hitting better than .200 ... Tanja Nikolic, the only senior, surged last weekend, averaging more than four kills a game and improving her hitting percentage nearly 250 points.

Utah State (2-1)

Former UCLA assistant Burt Fuller is the Aggies' new coach, with former Warrior assistant Matt Johnson his assistant. ... Utah State lost its three most prolific attackers from last year's team, which advanced to the NCAA's second round .... JC transfer Erin Cartwright (6-1 OH) made the transition to Division I look easy last week, averaging more than four kills a game in an all-tournament performance. ... The Aggies, picked to finish fifth in the Big West, have three senior starters in Chelsi Neves (5-9 S), Michelle Matheson (6-0 MB) and Heather Olmstead (5-9 DS). ... Punahou graduate Melissa Wilton, daughter of UH men's coach Mike, is a freshman for Utah State.

Cincinnati (2-0)

The Bearcats have been to the last two NCAA Tournaments, and return four all-conference players in Bonita Wise (6-0 MB), Trish Ladusaw (5-9 OH), Rachel Beran (5-7 DS) and Laura Lauder (5-8 S), who was Freshman of the Year. ... Wise was a tournament MVP last week, hitting .354 at the Golden Gate Classic. Ladusaw, currently fourth in NCAA career dig average (4.38 per game), averaged 3.71 kills and 3.21 digs. Freshman Becky Stahl (5-11 OH) also earned all-tournament honors, hitting .385.

Quick sets: Andrea Gomez-Tukuafu will go up against her former teammates on TV tomorrow (Fri.) when Daniel Ho's "Finding My Way" concert will be shown on Oceanic channel 16, at 7 p.m. Tukuafu's new "Stronger and Stronger" music video will be featured. The one-hour show will be repeated Sunday, at 6 p.m., and prior to OIA football games. ... To appease UH football fans, Saturday's matches begin at 1 p.m. (UH vs. Cincinnati) and approximately 3 (USC vs. Utah State).