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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 14, 2006

UH setter Kamana'o named a first-team All-American

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Dave Shoji says Kanoe Kamana'o "is the most unassuming, high-level athlete I think we've ever had."

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Jamie Houston

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1. Kim Willoughby 850 (’01)

2. Kim Willoughby 752 (’03)

3T. Kim Willoughby 688 (’02)

3T. Teee Williams 688 (’88)

5. Jamie Houston 670 (’06)

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Hawai'i's volleyball torch officially passed yesterday when the American Volleyball Coaches Association sent Kanoe Kamana'o out with her fourth All-America honor and invited Rainbow Wahine sophomore Jamie Houston into its elite group by naming her to the third team.

Kamana'o, a senior out of 'Iolani, earned All-America first-team honors for the second time. She is the only player among the 36 honored on first, second and third teams to have been named a four-time All-American.

UH senior Sarah Mason and junior Juliana Sanders, also on the all-West Region team, are honorable mention All-Americans.

Kamana'o has been the focal point for Hawai'i since she was named the 2003 national Freshman of the Year. She has averaged 13 1/2 assists, 2 1/2 digs and one block a game from the moment she arrived in Manoa — a statistical collection no one in the country can match.

All the green shirts in Stan Sheriff Center that proclaim "No Better Setter" might be right. Even Dave Shoji, who guided UH to the regional final and a 29-6 record in his 32nd year as coach, has never seen anything like her. And not just because of her phenomenal talent.

"Personally, I'm going to miss being around a quality young woman," Shoji said. "There is nothing about her you could ever dislike. She is the most unassuming, high-level athlete I think we've ever had in the program."

Kamana'o unofficially became a Rainbow Wahine six years before she graduated from 'Iolani, wiping the floor at every home match. She stayed here because, unlike Mainland coaches who saw her as a gifted libero with the junior national team, Shoji wanted the relatively small 5-foot-8 Kamana'o to set. Now she plans to venture overseas to play professionally and possibly pursue an Olympic future.

"She's been playing volleyball since she was in the womb, I think, and she was at courtside when she was younger," said TV analyst and former Punahou coach Chris McLachlin. "You wonder how much her little mind was absorbing as she watched one All-American after another."

Kamana'o has become the most decorated setter in the history of Rainbow Wahine volleyball, which has featured seven All-America setters and won four national championships. Along with her four All-America honors (two first-team and two thirds), she was a three-time Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, the 2005 Joe Kearney Award winner as the WAC's top female athlete and a two-time all-Academic selection.

Kamana'o leaves the collegiate game seventh on the NCAA career assist list and among the top 10 in every major statistical category at UH but kills. Her remarkable instincts for the game might be best seen each time she digs a ball — almost always sending it to the secondary setter — and isolates a hitter.

But her innate ability to "better the ball" has taken her to another level. She turns poor passes into hittable balls, good hitters into great ones with spin-free sets in perfect places, and effective blockers into frustrated players frozen in their tracks as the ball goes the opposite direction.

"To block balls against a Kanoe-set team is very difficult," Florida coach Mary Wise said. "She is so good at getting balls antenna to antenna. Her ability to take a less-than-perfect pass and turn it into a perfect set ... that's what makes her such an elite player."

McLachlin believes there is even more. "If you add in her blocking ...," he muses. "How can a player not be inspired by a 5-8 girl roofing (USC's 6-foot-4) Asia Kaczor. It sends goosebumps up and down your spine and you want to be as good as that.

"Kanoe is very similar to (Olympian) Robyn (Ah Mow-Santos) in size, skill, humility, quietness. If Robyn can make it at the highest level, Kanoe can too."

Houston's sophomore performance, particularly late in the season, sparked thoughts of a professional future for her as well.

She picked up the game late in Alabama, but finished this year sixth in kills nationally, averaging 5.49 a game, and became the terminator Hawai'i desperately needed. Her 670 kills put her fifth on the UH single-season list behind former national players of the year Kim Willoughby and Teee Williams.

Houston's all-around game blossomed as she hurt teams with her defense, serving and back-row attacks. But, like Kamana'o, she was at her best at the net, where her athleticism and growing sophistication often made her impossible to stop. Even when everyone in the arena knew she would get the ball, Houston hit it so high and hard it usually went down.

That was never more evident than last Friday, when Houston went for a career-high 35 kills to lift UH to a memorable upset of fifth-seeded USC. She hit nearly .400 in 68 swings, against a block that averaged 6-2, and threw in 16 digs and five blocks.

"That was a truly amazing performance," McLachlin said. "We ran out of words to describe it. Thirty-five kills and she got very creative, which is a good sign. She got in a good flow, a good rhythm. She chose her spots. If the set was where she liked it, she unloaded. If not, she found another speed. Those quick decisions are hard to make."

Shoji sees Houston's maturity accompanied by an "air that is more than confidence." McLachlin sees an athlete searching for consistency and prepared to put the 'Bows on her shoulders.

Kamana'o is one of just three seniors on the All-America first team. There are two on the second and six on the third. Penn State's Megan Hodge is the AVCA Freshman of Year. The AVCA Player of the Year will be announced tomorrow.

Reach Ann Miller at amiller@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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