Rainbows take on Spartans
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
It is the end of October. Does your volleyball team know where its ballhandling is?
Hawai'i's 132-match Western Athletic Conference winning streak is over. Drama has returned to the WAC after an eight-year siesta. The 15th-ranked Rainbow Wahine (16-5, 8-1 WAC) are locked in a first-place chase with 23rd-ranked New Mexico State (26-1, 9-1) that could be decided two weeks from now, here on Senior Night.
But tonight at 5, when Hawai'i takes on San Jose State (14-9, 5-5), maybe all it is searching for is All-America setter Kanoe Kamana'o. If UH can get her the ball on the net with most every pass and dig, basically everything takes care of itself.
It sounds so simple and has been so elusive, even before the 'Bows lost three starters to injury. It is a matter of focus and finesse, talent and tenacity. In the never-dull world of 2006 Rainbow Wahine volleyball, the basics remain the most critical part of the game.
"If we're not playing our game and not passing, then anything can happen," UH coach Dave Shoji said after his team flew, faltered and finally finished off Idaho Friday. "But it is exciting. You never know what's going to happen. This is a team where, if you're a fan, this kind of team keeps you on the edge of your seat."
Shoji, who will be 60 in a little more than a month, would like to live without the excitement. His team has kept it together through thick and sick with enough talent and spontaneity to beat all but a few of the country's best teams. But it has rarely looked refined enough to truly be a threat in the postseason.
Only five players in the country are getting more kills than UH sophomore Jamie Houston, and senior Sarah Mason is finishing her career with a flurry of kills, aces and digs. But Kamana'o, the focal point of all this, has had to rely on them too much.
"Whenever it's there, we're always going to run the middle," Kamana'o said bluntly. "Whenever you can get a quick attack, that's what we want to do."
Even those who don't know a shank from a float serve can see that no one has stopped Hawai'i's middle attack but Hawai'i. And even Kamana'o cannot set Juliana Sanders, Kari Gregory and freshman Amber Kaufman — basically a middle playing right side — when she is 10 feet off the net.
"Our passing is not perfect," Shoji said. "It's hard to get our middles and Amber involved from 6 feet or so off the net. If we could pass and dig better we could get those three more involved and then go outside. Ideally, that's what we need to do.
"When Mason and Houston get 50 swings, it's too many."
Friday's win was a microcosm of the Rainbow Wahine season. They hit .548 in a flawless first game, with the middle triad going 7 for 10, opening up the left so Houston and Mason could pound at a 12-for-21 pace.
They admittedly lost focus in the second and the Vandals stole that game. Hawai'i rallied behind a revived block and better ballhandling to hold on to the match, but clearly it is still vulnerable. A 10-day hiatus and the streak-stopping loss at New Mexico State had apparently not changed much, at least for the 'Bows.
"I'm sure they're (WAC opponents) all pretty happy that we lost," Shoji said. "You always want to have some kind of hope of winning a match. That gives everybody a little hope."
Coincidentally, ballhandling has always been San Jose State's strength. Spartan libero Jessie Shull leads the WAC at nearly six digs a game and is only the 18th player in NCAA history to amass 2,000 digs. Kamehameha graduate Kristal Tsukano is kicking in another two digs a game. What they start, all-WAC hitter Jennifer Senftleben often ends. And, the fifth-place Spartans are the WAC's second-best serving team.
But Shoji's biggest fear tonight is "complacency on our part. We won easy there so I hope we don't think that will translate into winning easy at home. We need to stay focused."
It is the end of October. It is time for Hawai'i to find its ballhandling, and the NCAA contender it claims to be.
WHO: No. 15 Hawai'i (15-5, 7-1 WAC) vs. San Jose State (14-9, 5-5)
WHERE: STAN SHERIFF CENTER
WHEN: Today at 5 p.m.
TV/RADIO: LIVE ON KFVE (5)/SPORTS RADIO (1420 AM)
TICKETS: $19 lower level and $16 (adults), $10 (seniors 65-older), $6 (students 4-18) and $3 (UH students) upper level
PROMOTION: Fans can drop off used wireless phones, batteries and accessories from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. for the Verizon Wireless HopeLine, to benefit victims of domestic violence.
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.