Kill 'em with kindness
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
STANFORD, Calif. —Rarely has someone with an appearance so sweet and unimposing been so vital to Hawai'i's volleyball fortunes, or any other highly ranked team, for that matter.
The third-ranked Rainbow Wahine (30-2) have come this far — riding a 26-match winning streak into tonight's regional semifinal against eighth-ranked Illinois (26-5) at Maples Pavilion — with impressive balance. But as the season winds down, sophomore Kanani Danielson seems to just be warming up.
She brought them to tonight's regional with a performance so spectacular at last week's USC regional opposing coaches and players were in awe.
In the last 10 matches, she is hitting .463 and averaging nearly five kills a set. Yet the 5-foot-10 Kamehameha graduate is dwarfed by most opposing hitters, even as she drills kills by them. Hawai'i libero Liz Ka'aihue claims trying to dig her shots is like trying to chase a golf ball.
"She hits fast, hits down, elevates and her ball comes quick at you so you have to be ready," Ka'aihue says. "You can't make a move, you just have to be there. She has so many options. She's got a range of shots. It's all talent and she works hard.
"She's only gotten better so I feel bad for people when she's a senior," adds Ka'aihue, a junior, who then jokes, "I thought I'd get out before she peaks."
In the Rainbow Wahine's storied history they have had Teees and Kees (both Williams), Lilys (Kahumoku) and Kims (Willoughby) who have earned first-team NCAA All-America honors outside.
All have been utterly intimidating, in person and/or while crushing volleyballs. Danielson is utterly under the radar.
She looks too small and smiles too much, rarely raises her voice and always finds a way to turn a question about herself into a soliloquy on her "wonderful teammates."
She is absolutely sincere and "always happy, fun to be around, positive," Ka'aihue insists.
Danielson is also dynamic and positively spectacular. She is hitting 51 points higher (.337) and averaging one more kill (4.23) than her freshman season, when she was third-team All-American. Her attack percentage has been among the Top 50 most of the year despite many more attempts than most anyone on that list. While most are middles with 500 or 600 swings, Danielson has taken 938.
Among the few even comparable are Megan Hodge and Destinee Hooker, All-America hitters for top-ranked Penn State and second-ranked Texas. Both are seniors and six inches taller than Danielson.
"Kanani has an amazing ability to 'see' what teams give her when she faces a block," says Utah State coach Grayson DuBose, who saw Danielson torch his team for a career-high 32 kills a month ago. "I think this ability separates her from the average outside hitter. She sees what is available and then hits it there."
With authority, or with touch, cross-court or down the line, straight down inside the 10-foot line, deep into an empty corner or slashing off the blocker. Danielson's back-row attack has improved immensely as has her block. In one year she has matured from phenomenal freshman, to simply phenomenal.
At this stage of the season, as Hawai'i faces a parade of bigger BCS opponents in its fourth straight week on the road, Danielson is clearly its unintimidating looking terminator. Just don't tell her.
"She's comfortable assuming that role but not taking that role," UH coach Dave Shoji says. "We're not telling her she's got to do that, it just will have to happen. She prefers it that way."
That has been her humble style since she was a three-time state player of the year at Kamehameha, where she also won the state high jump as a senior. Volleyball is a huge part of her life, and she prefers to play for fun to rise above the suffocating pressure. It is part of her unique charm.
"To me, besides the obvious physical skills she has — athleticism, jumping ability and power, those are no-brainers — she looks like she just loves playing volleyball," DuBose says. "It is a part of who she is. If she wasn't playing for UH she would be out at the beach playing with family and friends. She just looks like she loves what she is doing. In this day and age, that makes her unique."
Senior Catherine Fowler, a reserve hitter/blocker, is not available this weekend after spraining her right ankle in practice in Hawai'i. Everyone else is healthy.
Fowler studied and watched practice yesterday at Maples Pavilion along with Emily Maeda's and Liz Ka'aihue's parents and Dave Shoji's kids — Erik and Kawika, who play for the Stanford men's team, and Cobey, Director of Volleyball Operations for the Stanford women. Jordan Inafuku, a Kamehameha graduate on the men's team, was also at practice before leaving for a final. There are seven Hawai'i players on the Stanford men's roster.
Cobey Shoji played for Illinois coach Kevin Hambly when he was a UNLV assistant. She also played for Michigan, which gives her a connection with all four regional teams.
All Hawai'i matches will be broadcast live on ESPN/1420 AM. Both of today's regional semifinals will be webcast live on the internet, at http://gostanford.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/0910-ncaa-wvolley-tourneycentral.html. Tomorrow's regional final will be shown live on ESPNU.
Stanford has pre-sold 2,000 tickets for the matches, which should include plenty of Hawai'i fans. The Rainbow Wahine usually have more fans than the home team when they play at nearby San Jose State. Former players Caroline Blood, Cayley Thurlby, Kee Williams, Deitre Collins and Dede Dunstone, along with next year's recruits, watched the matches at USC last weekend.