Senior moment Tsuji will cherish
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
It might sound strange, but the most devoted Rainbow Wahine might be a guy named Ryan. If you ask the volleyball players for sixth-ranked Hawai'i, which takes on Belmont tomorrow in the first round of the NCAA Championship at USC's Galen Center, it has been that way for a few years.
Ryan Tsuji is their assistant coach and conscience, mentor and mediator, spiritual leader and the person they turn to in times of great joy and despair. He has been with the program since 2001, coming in just as All-American Lily Kahumoku opted out for a one-year sabbatical. He started as a volunteer, moved up to manager and is the interim assistant coach this year while associate Kari Ambrozich takes time to tend to her baby.
Tsuji, a 2001 Waiakea High graduate who was all-state honorable mention in volleyball, got his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Communications in 2007 and will get his masters in Public Administration in May. This is his final season with the Rainbows. The son of Big Island Rep. Clift Tsuji is already lined up as a legislative committee clerk for the health committee.
From there, where he goes, nobody knows. UH coach Dave Shoji and players see him ultimately coaching or teaching, going into politics or the seminary. Absolutely no one sees the amiable Tsuji failing.
"I think he's a great coach, but then again he's very strong in his Christian walk, which I think is cool," said senior Tara Hittle. "You can put the two together. ... He's very talented. There are so many things he's good at."
In particular, Tsuji has a gift for making friends, and keeping them. He comfortably changes gears from talking to politicians to talking pidgin to leading prayers. Former players call him to ask if he will have other former players call them. He is like a human Rolodex, armed with email addresses and cell numbers for pretty much every Rainbow Wahine from this century.
They trust him and he sincerely cares about them. Tsuji coaches the Rusty Wahine club team composed of alumnae. He was "man of honor" in Lauren Duggins Chun's wedding. Each senior gets a unique, and well thought-out gift from Tsuji.
Last week, when players insisted he be introduced at Senior Night, Tsuji broke into tears as his family converged.
"Everyone loves Ryan," Hittle said. "I don't know anybody that doesn't like him."
Tsuji looks back on the last eight years as a blessing that began with a twist of fate. On a whim, he sent the staff an email after graduation, asking if they were interested in a volunteer assistant. Former associate coach Charlie Wade called and gave him a shot. That was two final fours, four regionals and two subregionals ago.
"I remember Charlie telling me the day I sent the email there were five other similar emails," Tsuji said. "He clicked mine."
It was divine intervention, coming from a few directions. The Rainbows grabbed a guy with a gift for the game and getting along with its players. Tsuji also assumed the role of running the team's chapel meetings before matches when the previous fellowship leaders moved.
Today, Tsuji's most prominent memories of his time with the team are his personal relationships, spiritual growth and a handful of "memorable matches" — such as 2002 at Nebraska, 2005 at Texas, and the recent New Mexico State showdowns.
"The No. 1 thing I've gained is the relationships I have with people," he said. "At the beginning I was so focused on winning matches. I remember being so nervous before big games — like Nebraska at Nebraska. After a while I re-examined my role on the team and realized the most important thing was basically my relationships with the players and how close I stay with all of them. ... It's important to build these relationships. Sometimes we get caught up in the world of volleyball and winning becomes so important we lose sight of the relationships we build with everybody.
"Another thing is that my spiritual growth has grown here. I definitely would not have been as connected with God if I was not involved with this program. Just dealing with the players who have helped me get to where I am spiritually — like Raeceen (Woolford) and Ashley (Watanabe) and Tara ... having that bond. I figured out my purpose was to help the spiritual aspect of the team and leading chapels."
Tsuji's vivid understanding of his role has allowed him to navigate the difficult path Shoji describes as "being friends with the players, but not being one of them." There has never been a doubt about his character, or willingness to do ... whatever.
In his eight seasons with the team, Tsuji has basically worked every area but recruiting. Even that is up to debate with his close connections to Hawai'i volleyball and his work with the 'Imi 'Ike club team, a labor of love that Shoji is trying to convince him he should continue.
"He came in more or less as a go-fer, did all the dirty work," Shoji said. "He got there early, set up and mopped. The great thing about him is he still does those type of things. He has way more responsibility now with coaching and scouting and there's a lot of off-court stuff he organizes. The depth of his role has been expanded only because he's wanted to do more. The more he's been allowed to do, the more I trusted him to do."
In his final year, Tsuji's mission is to instill in current players what they share with previous players — "Whether they know it or not, they will always be part of this sorority."
Early on, many thought Tsuji was Shoji's son. Tsuji is now his own man, fully appreciating what the program means to Hawai'i and hoping someone else will come along and remind future players what it means.
Meanwhile, Shoji sees Tsuji in a different light. "I'm honored when people think he's my son," the head coach said. "At first I thought it was kind of a joke. Lately, I'd be honored if he were my son."
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.