Posted at 11:41 a.m., Friday, December 19, 2003
UH’s Willoughby named National Player of the Year
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
"I had hopes but I never thought a girl coming from Napoleonville, Louisiana … that’s never going to happen," said Willoughby, who wore a haku lei to the banquet. "I never thought I’d play on a high-level team like this, never thought I would leave my college with a lot of the records or have an impact on the state the way I did. I never thought in a million years that that would happen. Today I was thinking, maybe you are the Cinderella of volleyball."
The 6-foot hitter is the third Rainbow Wahine to win the award, after Teee Williams (1987 and ’89) and Angelica Ljungquist (1996). Deitre Collins earned the Honda Award as the country’s best player in 1982 and ’83, before the AVCA honor existed.
The Rainbow Wahine won national championships with Collins (1982 and ’83) and Williams (’87). Ljungquist and Willoughby reached the final week but were denied titles. Willoughby played in three final fours, the last ending here Thursday with a loss to Florida.
The four Players of the Year shared awesome athletic ability and an enthusiasm for putting UH on their shoulders and launching it into the sport’s elite. Willoughby finished her career as Hawai'i’s leader in kills, digs, aces and sheer entertainment value.
"I would have loved to play with Kim," assistant coach Kari Anderson says. "She’s intense, competitive, her talent takes her to such a different level. She wants the ball at 29-29 and she’ll do something with it … she’s clutch, like Michael Jordan."
Willoughby also wanted the ball at 0-0.
"Kim attacks all the time," Stanford coach John Dunning says. "She’s the rare player that attacks from the service line. She’s as fearsome, or more, from the back row as the front. She’s standing off the court with the ball and she’s still an attacker. You never get relief from her.
"With most, they rotate and you get three rotations of relief. With Kim, it’s a relentless attack because she attacks from everywhere."
Adds Nevada coach Devin Scruggs: "I’m 5-11 with heels and I tower over her. There’s no way she’s 6 foot. To be able to do the things she does with her size … I had a club coach giving me feedback on a player and they said I don’t know if she’s big enough. I said, 'She’s the same size as Kim Willoughby.’ It doesn’t matter how tall, it’s how high you hit over the net. That’s the difference. Kim hits so high above the block, let alone the net. That’s pretty hard to defend against."
Willoughby’s background provided few clues to what was to come. She was a brilliant athlete, in volleyball, basketball and track, at Assumption High School. But hers was hardly a conventional background for the sport she will try to take to the Olympic level beginning next month when she goes to the national team.
She admitted as much when she was honored at Friday’s Player of the Year banquet. Willoughby looked up in shock when her name was announced and stood in the middle of the stage in a daze until teammate Lily Kahumoku hugged her. The two stood crying in each other’s arms until Willoughby could speak.
Earlier, she had asked Sandy Fussell and Tara Campo, her high school coaches, to stand. They made the six-hour drive from Napoleonville with eight others. "They have been to hell and back with me," Willoughby said. "They know what I was like in high school."
Then Willoughby thanked Hawai'i coaches Dave Shoji and Charlie Wade, and Kahumoku.
"You’re awesome," Willoughby said. "It’s been the best four years of my life. We’ve had our moments, but we’ve always loved each other. And Lily, there’s no words for us. You’ve been there for me a lot. In my heart, you’ll always be my friend and my sister."
Willoughby did not grow up with the game in Louisiana, yet came to Hawai'i with an uncanny sense of its intricacies that Shoji compared to "a 30-year-old international player." She also came with that air of ultimate confidence that can’t be taught, and was difficult to trace given all the tough times she faced as a child.
"I was just a normal everyday kid that didn’t need anything when I came to Hawai'i," said Collins, who was at the banquet. "Kim needed everything. I hope having the support like people support you in Hawai'i has been a wonderful experience. It was for me. … They are so into it in Hawai'i, you can’t compare it to anything else. Her biggest culture shock will be when she leaves. It’s going to be crazy. When she’s gone, it could be a letdown. That’s why so many of us are willing to go back."
Willoughby promises to return to earn her sociology degree next December. But she won’t ever be with the Rainbow Wahine again, on the court, relentlessly attacking and encouraging. The "genetic masterpiece" — Kahumoku’s description — who can touch 10 feet 6 will be deeply missed, in many ways.
She has set a new standard for the way the game is played in Hawai'i.
"This is just the start of something greater for her," Shoji said. "It kicks off her going to the Olympic team and professional career. Obviously everybody will know about this and the doors will open for her."
It will be intriguing to see how far Willoughby can go in volleyball, and how true she can remain to the person who has lit up so many lives. Florida coach Mary Wise came up to her yesterday to congratulate her, and remind her "all those little girls are looking up to you now."
Fussell, who is like a second mother to Willoughby, checks in with the Hawai'i staff regularly. First, she asks if her hanai daughter is happy, then how she is doing in school. There are no more questions. Fussell already knows that Willoughby is a devastating volleyball player. She also knows the rare impact she could have beyond the game.
"Everytime she walked in the gym in high school the kids just ran to her," Fussell recalls. "I never once saw her turn a young child away. She just has this knack with them, it’s a gift. I hope she uses it to teach young children, it’s pretty special. I don’t think you can teach it."
Very little about Willoughby could be taught.
QUICK SETS: Lily Kahumoku offered a Hawaiian chant as her speech at yesterdays Player of the Year/All-America banquet. Setter Nevena Siljegovic, the AVCAs Two-Year College Player of the Year out of Moorpark, will go to USC next season. The other Players of the Year are Kim Morohunfola (Cal State-San Bernardino) for Division II, Amy Smith (La Verne) Division III and Fernanda Vivancos Nelson (National American) NAIA.
Reach Ann Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8043