Hawai'i hoping success will come to pass
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
It is August, volleyball coaches. Do you know where your passing is?
In Manoa, that's a maybe.
Hawai'i, ranked seventh in the preseason poll, lost two-thirds of its serve reception when primary passers Susie Boogaard and Ashley Watanabe used up their eligibility last year. Coach Dave Shoji is looking for at least two passers to complement junior Tara Hittle by the time the season opens Friday against 19th-ranked Pepperdine.
Without a good first touch, it won't matter how gifted setter Kanoe Kamana'o is. Even a three-time All-American can't set an offense while running off the court.
The libero that replaces Watanabe — Raeceen Woolford is the current front-runner — might be the best passer from the mob of defensive specialists desperately searching for playing time.
The next best might come in as a passing specialist if the Rainbow Wahine can't find another consistent passer from among hitters Sarah Mason, Jamie Houston, Jessica Keefe and Alicia Arnott.
The consequences of poor passing are lethal. Hitters constantly stare down double blocks. Middles might rarely see the ball at all. Offensive options sink to one or none.
In the past month, Shoji has gone from calling ball control "very much a concern," to his team's "most unknown quantity," to "adequate." Whether that's progress or prayer might not be known until December.
NOT AN EASY TASK
Filling serve-reception vacancies is about as easy as passing itself. In other words, it sounds much simpler than it actually is.
"Passing becomes difficult when the ball is moving," Shoji said. "That's why the knuckle ball/float serve is so difficult to pass. If someone has a good float serve it's unpredictable.
"The other reason it's difficult is because the ball is coming so hard — especially in the men's game. You can't control it, it's just too fast. Like a 97 mph fastball you can't catch up to in baseball."
The skill is heavy on hand-eye coordination and confidence. Players with long memories need not apply.
"Passing is 90 percent mental," Hittle said. "You've got to shake off a bad pass, talk yourself into forgetting it. If you dwell on it, they'll keep serving you."
Shoji characterizes Hittle as the prototype "ball control left side" who is quick enough to cover copious amounts of court. He already calls replacing her in two years "our No. 1 priority."
She is not the prototypical Rainbow Wahine passer, though she is included in the group Shoji considers the premier passers in his 32 years.
SHOJI'S DREAM PASSERS
His dream passing team begins with Kori Pulaski, anchor of the 1982 and '83 championship teams. It continues with Mahina (Eleneki) Hugo and Tita Ahuna, who helped Hawai'i win its last national title in 1987, and Melissa Villaroman, libero for the 2002 and 2003 final-four teams.
Shoji also includes middles Suzanne Eagye Cox, Lisa Strand-Ma'a and Angelica Ljungquist, the 1996 national player of the year, on his list. There are vivid differences in styles.
"Melissa was the most technically sound of all of them," Shoji said. "She just looked under control, balanced all the time.
"Angelica was probably the least technical because she had so many moving parts and was so tall and lanky. But she just had the ability to contort her body and get the platform facing the target. It wasn't a pretty sight when she passed, but the ball went where it was supposed to go."
Villaroman, now working as a realtor for Eric Watanabe — Ashley's father — remains detail-oriented. She emphasizes to the kids she coaches in club volleyball elements as subtle as not letting your stance open, "bending your ankles" — a trick to make them get lower with their knee bend — and lengthening the platform by pushing their shoulders down.
The first priority is to get to the ball, and communicate well enough that everyone else on your team gets out of the way. For Hugo — now the middle school dean at La Pietra — the most valuable asset might be anticipation. Hittle's keys are to "beat the ball to the spot" and set herself so the ball would hit her in the belly button.
From there, hand-eye coordination takes over, particularly if the ball darts just as it gets to the passer and leaves them out of position. Shoji believes he can't teach someone to pass if their hand-eye skills are poor. All the passers he named shared a common trait:
"They have the ability to change and meet the ball and make solid contact," he said. "Even if they couldn't get their feet set or their arms out, somehow they got the ball to the target. ... You have to contort your body to get the ball where you want it to go. That is very difficult."
FASTER AND LOWER
It is getting harder all the time. Pulaski, who has lived in Texas and worked for UPS nearly 20 years, is struck by how much faster and lower passes are now.
"We used to pass high and give the setter time to set up and run plays," Pulaski recalled. "Now they have designated passers — that's changed too — and the setter runs in knowing the ball will come right to her. The hitters have already started their approach.
"It's a lot quicker, and the kids are a lot bigger these days. It's kinda cool, but they've got to raise the net now. I had to actually work to get up that high."
She also didn't have to deal with jump serves loaded with topspin or knuckling at random. Those have introduced the game to the overhand pass — Hittle's style of choice for floaters — and four passers to cover a court three, or two, used to manage.
Villaroman can go on at length about passing serves before they drop, "cushioning" topspin to slow velocity and passing short serves straight up. But for now, the Rainbow Wahine will settle for what they can get, and hope they are not a work in process for long.
Senior Sarah Mason, projected to start on the right side, suffered a Grade 1 lateral sprain of her left ankle yesterday. Mason came down awkwardly on a spike attempt from the backrow in the first game of Hawai'i's scrimmage. Mason's status for Friday's opener is not yet known, but a Grade 1 sprain is the least serious.
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.