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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 21, 2002

Bayou's gift to volleyball

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Kim Willoughby's storybook ending remains elusive, but she has been knocked down before. She just keeps getting up and writing new chapters.

Kim Willoughby has gone from being Napoleonville's most celebrated athlete to a two-time volleyball All-American at UH.

Associated Press

The hundreds of Hawai'i volleyball fans who went to Thursday's NCAA Championship semifinal found themselves surrounded by people who knew Willoughby — or knew of her —Êat Assumption High School. That was nearly all of nearby Napoleonville — home to 646 people, one stop light and a Rainbow Wahine volleyball All-American who was Louisiana's most famous athlete for three days.

The principal made his way to New Orleans Arena on Thursday as did the football coach, former teammates, teachers, coaches, current students, future students and family.

Willoughby visited Assumption Monday, warning friends not to wear the school's Red and Black to the match because it was too close to Stanford's Cardinal. She came back at night to speak at the school's athletics banquet.

"They said it was awesome," said Glenda Landry, wife of the principal.

"She made mention of the fact that she felt like family in Hawai'i, but regardless of where she went, home would always be Napoleonville," said Sandy Fussell, the coach who watched out for Willoughby in high school and gently but firmly encouraged her to go away to college. "She said she had achieved what she has because of our community.


"She talked to the younger kids, made mention of what it took to get where she is today."

Sandy Fussell
Willoughby's high school volleyball coach

• • •

"It was neat playing with her because she was so good as a freshman. It was all seniors and her on the court. ... I'm very excited for her. This has all been wonderful, for Kim and our community."

Jenea Breaux
Daughter of Assumption High's football coach

• • •

"Obviously she goes down in the history of Hawai'i volleyball as one of the all-time greats. I wouldn't trade her for anybody."

Dave Shoji
UH coach

• • •

"Kim is an amazing player. And you don't see a lot of everything she does in practice every day. She is just amazing."

Lauren Duggins
UH teammate

• • •

"(Willoughby is) going to go far, far, far beyond college."

Logan Tom
National Player of the Year and Stanford standout

"She talked to the younger kids, made mention of what it took to get where she is today. She said never once when she was sitting where they are sitting now did she think she would have the opportunity she had. She told them you've got to believe it can happen to you."

The New Orleans paper featured stories on Willoughby every day, including one three weeks in the making. It told of the village across all the bayou bridges that was home to a girl who learned to play volleyball in the dirt yard outside her mobile home in the middle of the cane fields.

It went on to talk about how Willoughby had told Fussell she wanted to quit school in ninth grade because of the difficulties her family faced. How Fussell talked her out of it and trained her so proficiently, taking her to a summer camp at Louisiana State where the coach saw her and alerted the national program.

"Talent-wise there was no doubt she was an exceptional athlete," Fussell said. "It was just fate she got exposure."

Suddenly the girl who would be Louisiana's state player of the year in volleyball and basketball, and an Assumption legend, saw the light at the end of the bayou bridges.

"It was neat playing with her because she was so good as a freshman," recalled Jenea Breaux, the football coach's daughter. "It was all seniors and her on the court. ... I'm very excited for her. This has all been wonderful, for Kim and our community."

Willoughby's good times are overdue. When she was a high school junior her mother, Lula Mae, was in a car accident that led to two strokes and paralyzed her. Then Kim's boyfriend, who had sat with her all those nights in the hospital, was shot after an argument and died.

Napoleonville and Assumption, a school as honored for its academics as its exceptional athletics, rallied around Kim. Fussell faced the swarm of recruiters. She remembers UH coach Dave Shoji's visit vividly.

"He was in shorts and a Hawaiian T-shirt and flip-flops," Fussell said. "Dave sat down and kicked off his shoes. He felt right at home. Kim always said she felt that same family atmosphere with them that she did with us."

Even the loss to Stanford, which ended Willoughby's dream of winning a national championship at home, could not dampen Napoleonville's enthusiasm. Willoughby might be 4,000 miles away, but this week it felt as if she had never left.

Louisiana's unique personality also made it abundantly clear why Willoughby has been able to dig such deep roots in Hawai'i the past three years. Both places embrace their diversity and celebrate their distinct pleasures.

Louisiana loves its decadence as much as its elegance. It insists you experience the bawdy Bourbon Street, then follows up with an invitation to see the old mansions with their breathtaking gardens.

It dares strangers to try its offbeat food and indulges itself without inhibition.

"I'm going to eat as much as I can now," Willoughby said as soon as her volleyball season ended. "I go to basketball right after this. I have to get bigger. If not, I'm going to get beat up."

Pressed on precisely what and where she would eat, she shook her head.

"Food, that's all I want," she said. "Whatever I can't get in Hawaii, that's what I'm going to eat."

Earlier in the week she had educated strangers on the poor quality of pond crawfish and proudly joked about the "healthy" diet she grew up with.

Somehow, through all the notoriety, the woman teammate Lily Kahumoku calls a "genetic masterpiece" and national Player of the Year Logan Tom insists is "going to go far, far, far beyond college," was able to focus this week.

"Homecoming was not a big deal for me, it wasn't even an issue for me," Willoughby said. "This is a huge part of my life. This is something I've worked really hard to get good at and my family knows that. And everyone that knows me knows that. Everyone understands that volleyball is first and everything else is after that."

Willoughby is different now, Fussell says. She is more muscular and the melodic "cajun-creole" drawl has morphed into a soft pidgin everyone in Napoleonville immediately noticed.

But in every other way, nothing has changed. Willoughby still lights up a gym, particularly one filled with fans.

"Obviously she goes down in the history of Hawai'i volleyball as one of the all-time greats," Shoji says. "I wouldn't trade her for anybody."

Willoughby's mother, now agile enough to go fishing again, watched her daughter play for the second time since eighth grade. Willoughby is now one of the finest players in the country and has been invited to play with the national team this summer. Soon, she could find herself playing all over the world. But she still cries when she has to leave her mother.

"Don't cost you nothing to be a nobody," Lula Mae told the local paper. "But it costs a lot to be somebody."