UH volleyball needs 'Smalls' to come up big
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
They might look the least imposing and be the most inconspicuous, but if ball control is priority one for this year's Rainbow Wahine volleyball team then "The Smalls" loom large.
Standing "Small" at the defensive positions for Hawai'i this year are sophomore Liz Ka'aihue, the returning libero, Jayme Lee, the smallest of them all and the 2006 libero, and freshmen walk-ons Emily Maeda and Sarah Prather.
Prather, who played for former Olympic coach Mick Haley on a California club team, is the tallest of "The Smalls" at 5 feet 10. At 5-8, Ka'aihue is half a foot taller than Lee. Maeda, a Roosevelt graduate making the transition from hitter, is 5-6.
They could hold much of Hawai'i's fortunes in their relatively tiny hands although they are hardly the only primary ballhandlers. Tara Hittle, Aneli Cubi-Otineru and freshman Kanani Herring all have exceptional ball-control skills and volleyball instincts.
Hawai'i will need them all, with coach Dave Shoji adamant about the Rainbow Wahine improving their ball control from the past two years. Hawai'i's hopes of installing a quicker offense rest on that becoming reality, on the first touch and in transition as the 'Bows crave controlled digs to jump-start their offense.
"You're going to see volleyball this year," said associate coach Mike Sealy, critical of last year's inability to run a transition offense. "I don't think we looked like a volleyball team last year. Our skills were not good in hindsight. That appears to be different now."
Ka'aihue, the first libero to receive a Rainbow Wahine scholarship, is No. 1 on the defensive depth chart for the second year. Her size and deceptive speed allow her to cover the most ground and her instincts for the game are exceptional.
She is the most reliable passer of the foursome, but got into trouble last year when she kept her arms too close to her body. If a year's growth and endless hours of training can cure that, Shoji will stay with her.
Lee, the quickest player on the team, helped salvage the 'Bows' ballhandling when it was beat up by injuries two years ago. But her size prevents her from covering as much passing area as most and an injury slowed her last season. Now she is healthy.
"She runs down a lot of balls," Shoji said. "She's just a sparkplug for us, perpetual motion. She gets to a lot of balls most people can't get to. If she passed better she'd be starting, but because of her stature she has to work really hard to make moves that bigger people can make easily. It puts pressure on her to cover as much ground as she needs to."
Maeda and Prather earned a shot at walking on over six others. Prather wasn't cleared until Monday and missed the first five practices. Maeda is currently third on the defensive depth chart. She simultaneously is making two difficult transitions — from hitter to defender and high school to college — but Shoji believes she can contribute even through the blur.
"She's a really nice kid who deserves a chance," Shoji said. "She's done everything we've asked her to do over the summer. She stays after and gets a coach to hit her balls. She's always asking questions and trying to learn as fast as she can. The kid is just nice to have around on the team so we're going to give her a chance because she has a great attitude right now."
Prather has had her eye on Hawai'i, attending summer camp and keeping in close touch with coaches. Her history indoors and on the beach gives her a solid foundation. Shoji characterizes her as "not having a weakness."
"She can pass, she knows the defense," he said, "but we'll see if she can handle the grind of being in college and going to practice every day and putting effort into every practice. She's untested in that area."
With fewer substitutions allowed this year, and Hawai'i's compelling interest in running the backrow attack, opportunities might shrink for every backrow specialist but libero.
Shoji hopes his reserves are as patient as they are talented. So far, even the notoriously finicky coaches are finding it hard to complain about the team's ballhandling. "Our ball control," Sealy said, "is miles from what it used to be."
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