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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

UH defenders are always in harm's way

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

For Melissa Villaroman and Hedder Ilustre, volleyball practice is a place of constant danger. Gifted hitters launch balls toward their teeth on a daily basis. Who better to gauge the firepower on this year's University of Hawai'i team?

At 5 feet 6, Villaroman and Ilustre are the last wall of defense for the Rainbow Wahine, who held their first practice yesterday. They pass, dig and sacrifice their bodies. There are times, particularly during the Western Athletic Conference season, when practice is tougher than games.

Defending against their teammates, particularly All-Americans Kim Willoughby and Lily Kahumoku, is probably something that should not be tried at home. Villaroman and Ilustre have no choice.

Their first reaction when they look up during a scrimmage and see Willoughby, Kahumoku or Maja Gustin bearing down on the ball and no blocker in sight?

"Oh, no," Villaroman admits.

It is their next move that makes their presence so imperative.

"I figure I better move up," Ilustre says, "because the ball is going straight down."

Guts like that, along with athleticism and the ability to speed-read what hitters and blockers are about to do, create ideal defenders. Villaroman and Ilustre are two of the finest in Hawai'i's vaunted defensive history.

They take an unusual view of their teammates' attacking talents. It is analytical, anchored in hours of repetitions and usually experienced looking straight up.

In their eyes, Kahumoku's greatest talent is her ability to deceive.

"You can't really tell where she's going to hit it until the last minute because she turns," Villaroman says. "She tricks you. She can be turned this way, but she hits the other way."

Willoughby's swing is dramatically different. She comes at defenders faster and harder. There is little deception and lots of intimidation, particularly when she wears tank tops in practice.

"Those arms of hers are guns," Ilustre says.

And Willoughby's post-kill stare can be frightening. "When you see her give 'the look' and you're on her side, you start laughing," Ilustre says. "I would be scared if I was on the other side."

Gustin comes at people with the raw power of Willoughby and the added edge of hitting quick sets, giving defenders less time to react. Villaroman and Ilustre give Gustin extra points for her ability to hit the "slide" set (behind the setter) down the line; most middles always go cross-court.

There is also Gustin's sheer athleticism, packed into a powerful 6-foot-3 package.

"She hits right on top of the ball," Ilustre says. "A lot of hitters are on their way down when they hit the ball. Maja is on her way up."

"And," Villaroman says, adding insult to a defender's possible injury, "she has hang time."

Lauren Duggins doesn't intimidate opponents as much as she out-quicks them. Villaroman says Duggins is so fast blockers sometimes don't see her coming. She also hits high with her "long arms." And, they say without trying to hide their envy, she could start at any position on the court.

Nohea Tano is nearly as quick and has an innate ability to adjust to sets and "find a place to put it," Ilustre says. She's also added heat to her hitting in the past year, buoyed by a breakout sophomore season.

Melody Eckmier offers a tough-to-read arm swing and a penchant for using the block, but her best offense might be a good defense, at least according to the players designated to cover the block.

"She gets up really high on the block," Villaroman says, "and if she gets it, it's not like they'll cover and send it back over. There's no way you can dig it. It goes straight down."

First impressions are all the defenders can offer on freshman hitter Susie Boogard and junior-transfer middle Karin Lundqvist, though Villaroman played on Boogard's club team when she was in eighth grade. But after just the first day of practice, Villaroman and Ilustre have a hint of what to expect.

Boogard's size and long arms get her over the block and she's already proved she can find a puka on the other side of the floor. Lundqvist comes in with international experience and Top-20 blocking credentials in two seasons at Montana State.

Is there enough firepower to take Hawai'i to its ultimate goal? It is far too early to tell. But the players responsible for keeping the rallies going long enough to let Hawai'i end them, are sure of one thing.

"We're glad," Ilustre says, "that they're on our team."

QUICK SETS: Hawai'i was ranked fourth in the USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association Preseason Poll, released yesterday. Nearly 70 coaches are invited to vote in the poll, making it the most watched barometer during the season. ... Stanford, which will play here Nov. 10, was ranked first, with 54 of the 65 first-place votes. The defending national champion was followed by Nebraska and USC. ... San Jose State was the only other WAC team to receive votes, placing 32nd. ... All four teams in the season-opening Hawaiian Airlines Rainbow Wahine Classic (Aug. 30-Sept. 2) are ranked — Hawai'i, Ohio State (9), UCLA (11) and Colorado (21).

• • •

Coaches rank Hawai'i fourth

Advertiser Staff

The University of Hawai'i Rainbow Wahine will open the season ranked fourth in the USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll.

UH, which was second in the Volleyball Magazine preseason poll behind defending national champion Stanford, followed the Cardinal, Nebraska and USC in the USA Today poll. UH got five of 65 first-place votes.

Others receiving points: South Carolina (161), North Carolina (155), Texas (117), Louisville (105), San Diego (97), Washington State (81), San Jose State (67), Minnesota (66), Missouri (58), Arkansas (53), Utah State (47), Duke (36), Baylor (26), Cincinnati (12), Georgia Tech (10), Loyola Marymount (10), Michigan (10), Texas Tech (9), Cal Poly (7), Eastern Washington (7), Oregon State (7), South Florida (4), Alabama (3), Southwest Missouri State (3).