Ambrozich 'gets it' as associate coach
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
Hawai'i coach Dave Shoji will take a long, analytical look at his bench during Wednesday's Rainbow Wahine volleyball exhibition against Wisconsin. That includes every healthy player and new associate coach Mike Sealy.
It includes everyone but Kari Ambrozich. After 10 years as his assistant and four as a player, Shoji knows precisely what Ambrozich can give him. That's why he promoted her to associate when he hired Sealy last week.
The promotion was not payback for Ambrozich's persistence, loyalty or organizational skills, her sophisticated approach to his offense or devotion to the setters. It wasn't for her unrelenting emphasis on academics or her rare ability to lend a non-judgmental, compassionate ear to any player who needs to talk about anything, or anyone.
It was for all that and more. Shoji admits even he doesn't see all Ambrozich accomplishes quietly outside the sidelines.
"The upgrade in her position is past due," he said, "so I'm really happy the change in our staff allowed me to do this for her.
"Her rapport with the players and her concern about their lives in general ... is her most valuable asset. She's why having a female on the staff is so valuable. She can talk to them in ways a male coach just can never connect."
More than being the only woman on Shoji's staff, it might just be the way Ambrozich has about her.
"If people are really struggling with personal issues often they go into hiding in the corner," she said. "I think they need to know people are there for them, on their side, regardless of if they made a mistake or not."
Shoji recruited Ambrozich — then Kari Anderson — out of Minnesota 16 years ago. He liked her setting and savvy. She liked the thought of living in a place that was the polar opposite of where she grew up — or the opposite of polar.
Ambrozich was captain her final two years and is eighth on the UH career assist list. This despite the presence of Robyn Ah Mow — the U.S. setter at the last two Olympics — her final two seasons.
If Shoji was looking for a sign about his future coach back in the early '90s, Ambrozich gave it with the grace she showed as Ah Mow inexorably took over her position. Ambrozich understood the big picture even when she was little. She knew Ah Mow was someone special. She never stopped working to get her position back, but she never started grumbling.
Ambrozich spent a year as an assistant before she graduated in business administration and went to work for Liberty House. Shoji asked her to help coach his club team. Ambrozich was quickly hooked by helping players "get it."
"Any teacher would probably say the same thing," Ambrozich said. "I really enjoyed that. As I got more responsibility with a better group of kids I got hooked even more because they 'get it' even faster."
After a year in the "business world," and missing the relationships she had grown to appreciate in team sports, a fulltime assistant position opened. Ambrozich has added to her repertoire every season since.
She sees the game much the same as Shoji, from the way they train setters — UH led the country in assists in 2003 and 2004 — to their analytical nature and ability to simplify that analysis for their team. Ironically, Ambrozich believes she might have been too analytical as a player.
"I always had to be thinking," Ambrozich said. "Robyn could really react. I always had to think about it and practice it over and over. The more you get around the game, the more simple it becomes to you. It doesn't have to be a complex thing. I wish I'd had that knowledge earlier."
Lots has changed.
When Ambrozich was struggling in statistics and finance classes as a player, she had to find and fund a tutor herself. Now she works closely with the Nagatani Academic Center, where 100 tutors are available to athletes in any subject.
In her final season, the Rainbow Wahine made the monumental move from Klum Gym to the Stan Sheriff Center and became the only revenue-producing women's volleyball program in the country.
Shoji, according to Ambrozich, remains much the same. He has always delegated responsibility to his assistants, enjoyed the painstaking process of creating an elite team, and wanted to win.
"One thing that has not changed is his desire to win and his competitiveness," Ambrozich said. "He is just as competitive today as when I was playing. I hope that doesn't change. That's what makes him strive to make the program better."
And find coaches who will help him win that elusive fifth national title. Ambrozich is not going anywhere soon.
She married former UH basketball player Eric Ambrozich 15 months ago. Both "love everything about this place." She is also pursuing her master's in Higher Education Administration. Her appreciation of Title IX has left her with a long-term goal of possibly becoming a Senior Woman Administrator.
"Whatever she wants do she would be really successful at," Shoji said. "She could go back into business. I could see her in a three-piece suit being the head of a department. She is capable of doing pretty much anything."
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.