No. 3 not so bad for UH Wahine
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — Most figured Penn State and Texas were the two best teams in the country from the moment they rolled the volleyballs out this season.
After the past three weeks, it is awfully clear Hawai'i is No. 3.
Not your goal when you've won four national titles and have the game's greatest following, but dramatically better than 327 other Division I teams.
And, for this year's feel-good Rainbow Wahine, a dramatic statement.
"Getting here was a great accomplishment," said UH coach Dave Shoji after his team fell in four to Penn State in Thursday's NCAA Championship semifinal. "A lot of people doubted how good we are based on our being in the WAC. I think we proved to everybody in the country we are a good team. I think we are the third-best team. We lost to the best two teams in the country. It's not a bad place to be."
The long road to the St. Pete Times Forum — made much longer by a No. 12 seed that has been rendered ridiculous — somehow brought out the best in the 32-3 'Bows, who brought out the best in each other.
Shoji spoke often of their heart and the players said they were blessed with great chemistry.
But lots of teams talk of those characteristics. Final-four teams believe in them and each other and this team enjoyed the journey, together. Even as Penn State raged through a rally to erase Hawai'i's early lead Thursday, the 'Bows' mantra on the court was "all about us." They had each other's backs to the bittersweet end.
"We just had to deal with volleyball with this group," Shoji said. "There was very little off-court stuff going on. Every team has issues, but we had very few issues."
The Rainbows made it work with hard work, versatile talent and a team-wide trust that was evident from the four opening victories, through the two tenuous losses and the 28 victories that followed.
There was never a question, even in Shoji's demanding mind, of if they could have given more. Before the final match, he told them as much.
"I actually said that I thought there was nothing I could say to get them to play any harder," Shoji recalled. "We'd talked about being in this situation so there was not going to be any motivational speech."
When the Rainbow Wahine won the opening set it was only the fifth the unbeaten Nittany Lions had lost all season. The 'Bows' hopes rose, until Penn State's long, lanky, All-American frames rose up higher and crushed their dream.
What remained was a wondrous season.
There was the emergence of sophomore Kanani Danielson, who blossomed into a first-team All-American, letting the rest of the country see how gifted, and grounded, she is.
She left Thursday's press conference with a long statement that closed with "we had to play the greatest game we ever played this season."
Then she spontaneously grinned "good bye" to a room full of strangers.
Stephanie Ferrell and Brittany Hewitt had breakout postseasons as first-year starters. Ferrell found another level late. Hewitt — the only Rainbow starter taller than 6 feet — was a pleasant surprise in every aspect of the word, bolting among the nation's block leaders and grinning her way through every new situation.
She was the only real surprise this season, according to her coach.
"She was a big surprise," Shoji said. "We thought she was one or two years away. She still has a lot of room to get better, but for a kid out of Idaho who hadn't played much, and a freshman, she did a great job."
Dani Mafua and Liz Ka'aihue, usually saturated in sweat, were remarkable in their roles, and probably will be again next year.
And the seniors were spectacular, from the open-minded joy of Arkansas transfer Catherine Fow-ler to the home-grown grit and motherly guidance of Aneli Cubi-Otineru, who ended the torturous USC match by falling to the floor in prayer.
Her resemblance to legendary local players of the past, particularly Tita Ahuna, made her a focal point on and off the court. It also spoke volumes of second chances, for a third-team All-American who was not academically eligible out of Punahou, but ultimately was as relentless in class as she was with what was clearly "her" team.
UH men's coach Charlie Wade, who watched Cubi-Otineru back when he was still Shoji's recruiter, knew she could turn her life around.
"I knew she wanted to play here in front of these fans," said Wade, one of Cubi-Otineru's biggest fans. "You look at her pedigree and you can tell family is a big part of her life. She's one of those kids who really gets how important it is to come here and play in front of these fans if you live here. She recognizes that she does want to spend the rest of her life here, so to have her name and face out here at UH is really big, really valuable ... it can get you in the door."
Jayme Lee and Stephanie Brandt also found time to excel at both the "student" and "athlete" part of the complicated equation. Brandt's hard-earned 3.82 GPA earned her a national academic award at the final four, while Lee is headed for med school.
And the volatile, immensely talented Amber Kaufman finally found some sense of serenity, on a team she deemed, simply, "family."
Next fall, USC, UCLA, New Mexico, Brigham Young, San Diego, Kansas State, Saint Mary's and Irvine will come to the Stan Sheriff Center. Three tall attackers and a small setter have been recruited. UH will find out if it will win its bid to host a 2011 or 2012 regional — a possibility one NCAA committee member acknowledged has "a much better chance" than Hawai'i staying home for the opening rounds.
But for a while, even Shoji would like to savor the good karma, and great success, of 2009.
"It will be different next year," he said. "I'm not sure who takes Aneli and Amber's place, but we should be bigger. We won't be as good in some areas, but we could be better in others. Until this (Penn State) match our size was fine. But in this match they wore us down. We had too much to overcome."
Shoji fully appreciated this team's karma, in a year unlike any other. For the first time in his 63 years, he had no parents at his matches. Father Kobe died in 2004 and mother Chiz last summer. His father-in-law, who had never missed a UH final four, passed away last year.
They were there only in spirit in his 35th year at UH, when he won his 1,000th match, was named national coach of the year and his team streaked back to the final four.
"I think they would have enjoyed being in this atmosphere just as much as we have," Shoji said "It's tough to be here and ... they were always, always there for us. They were our biggest supporters — the three of them. Being here and them not being able to share in it again is difficult."