'Teee' time remarkable one for UH volleyball
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Teee Williams' spikes drew blood. She once stuffed a volleyball before the hitter even took a swing and constantly blocked balls into opponents' stomachs. Her digs were the stuff of defensive dreams.
But what most will remember about the woman now known as Tonya Slacanin — "still Teee to my friends" — is that she was the missing link who helped return the NCAA championship to Hawai'i in 1987, and she could perform volleyball's version of the dunk like few other women.
Slacanin, who lives in Germany with husband Drazen Slacanin and their three kids, possessed the rare ability to go over anyone in her way and launch the ball straight down with so much velocity that it would bounce straight up, while devastated defenders watched in awed horror.
"She can hit or she can hang around and wait for the block to go up and down a couple times and then hit," former Fresno State coach Leilani Overstreet once said. "It is a nightmare."
But if you were a Rainbow Wahine fan, it sure was fun to watch. And Slacanin, now 41, looks back at her time here with a fondness far beyond anything else she has experienced in the game. She was born in Los Angeles, raised in Long Beach and has lived in Europe for more than a decade, but her infant daughter's name is Leilani and it is very clear Hawai'i remains in her heart.
"Over the years I have played in front of many crowds — smaller ones and bigger crowds than in Hawai'i," she e-mails from Europe. "But for me, personally, Hawai'i has been my favorite. Where in the world could I have been where the gym is sold out, the walls are sweating, and when I jump up to hit you hear 'TEEEE?' ... Nowhere but Klum."
She has lived in Germany the past 10 years. It is not Hawai'i, but with the right guy, three children and volleyball still in her life, Slacanin is happy.
"The weather here is not all that great," she says. "It is gray all the time and some people are weird, but it is like that all over the world. Now I can say I have learned to like it. I never thought I would be living here but this is where God has me and where love took me."
UH coach Dave Shoji once compared her game to the vaunted Cuban Olympians, who were so physically superior they struck fear in the opposition. Now he calls her a "more slender, more fluid" version of 2003 national Player of the Year Kim Willoughby.
Former associate coach Dean Nowack still believes the skinny Williams had an armswing so special she could hit the ball "harder than anybody I ever saw. ... Teee actually scared people a little bit."
She also had the ability to do it over and over again, seemingly — especially for opponents — into infinity. She set an NCAA record with 103 swings one night, burying 39.
"She was just bombing balls," Nowack recalled. "She did not get tired."
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
She did not get hurt. Williams started all 107 matches in her career. UH won 99.
In the 1987 championship year, the high-flying 5-foot-11 Williams played middle, surrounded by seniors Tita Ahuna, Mahina Eleneki, Suzanne Eagye and Diana Jessie, and Czech setter Martina Cincerova. For three years the seniors had come up short, particularly against a Pacific team that flattened them 11 straight times en route to back-to-back national titles.
Williams, who had to sit out her freshman season because of new NCAA academic restrictions, was the missing piece of the championship puzzle. She led the title team in every hitting statistic, was second in blocks and digs, and was named national Player of the Year. Just as important, her sweet personality fit in snugly and swiftly with her established teammates.
"She brought firepower," Ahuna said. "I think on the '87 team we had maturity. We just needed somebody with power and she brought all that. She was just a phenomenal athlete and got the job done. She put an exclamation point on everything she did."
After those seniors left, Williams would "shoulder" much more of the load and bring the 'Bows within points of another title in 1988. Shoji moved her outside and she took outrageous numbers of swings, leading the country with more than six kills a game as a senior.
"I'm not sure how her arm actually stayed on," Shoji said. "We'd set her anywhere from 60 to 80 balls a match. That's ridiculous. It's amazing she didn't have major shoulder problems, but she was real durable. She could swing all night and at the end she'd be almost as good as she was at the start."
Through it all, Williams was drama-free. There were no diva-like tantrums, college academics were never a problem and she suffered through homesickness her first year here, when she couldn't play, without complaint. She was funny, extremely amiable and equally comfortable with putting a team on her back and inspiring teammates to join her on the ride.
She did not have an arrogant bone in her body. "I've just been trying to get teams as far as I could get them," she said just before she left. "I want people to remember that there are good athletes here who aren't cocky or stuck on themselves."
Being here was long a part of her plan and she executed it brilliantly. She came here with the goal of winning an NCAA title, or three, earning a place on the national team, starting in the 1992 Olympics, playing professionally and then "a couple kids."
Check, check, check, check, check.
FOREVER A RAINBOW
"She was something all coaches can appreciate," Shoji said. "She was, as we call it now, low profile and low maintenance. We never had to worry about her character or showing up on time. She was ready to go. She had some issues out of high school academically, but here she was never in trouble. She did everything she had to do. It's rare to have a player like that nowadays. She didn't have issues with anything. She was pretty much all business and taking care of business.
"She was a sweetheart. Everybody gravitated toward her. She could be funny and she knew when to be serious. She was always one of my favorites."
The feeling was mutual. Slacanin says she still smiles everytime she thinks of Hawai'i and just had a conversation with her son about Hanauma Bay and the "Toilet Bowl." She has vivid memories of a packed Klum Gym, plate lunches, fruit punch, tailgate parties, meeting Magic Johnson when he was here with the Lakers and the sound of Shoji's slippers distracting her during study hall.
Her best memory remains that 1987 championship, with a few chasers.
"I have a lot of great memories," she writes. "The people there have always been, to me, more laid back and now that I am 41 I can enjoy life as it comes with also a more laid-back attitude. It would be nice if it was on one of the beaches in Hawai'i, but I cannot have everything. No matter where I am in the world, if I look up on some days the one thing I see that I have from Hawai'i is a rainbow."