Seniors take lead for UH at WAC championships
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Suddenly, the Western Athletic Conference Tennis Tournament has real meaning in Mānoa.
The Rainbow Warriors are in search of a three-peat this weekend in Fresno, Calif. — and their third consecutive NCAA Tournament. They just clinched their first regular-season WAC title, the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. Saturday, Hawai'i plays the winner of tomorrow's match between fourth-seeded Nevada and fifth-seeded Idaho.
The Rainbow Wahine are seeded fourth and play fifth-seeded Idaho tomorrow at 8 a.m. HST. That winner takes on top-seeded Boise State in Saturday's semifinals. The Broncos are ranked 43rd, but Fresno State has won the last eight WAC titles.
In the midst of the WAC madness Hawai'i witnessed last year as tournament host, the Rainbow teams will rely on their lone seniors.
Tuesday, Andreas Weber captured the Jack Bonham Award — the athletic department's highest honor. Yesterday, the senior was named WAC Player of the Week for the second time in his career. He has won eight of his last nine matches and is 13-4 at No. 2 singles.
Weber is a scholar — 3.66 cumulative GPA — and an athlete, and the best thing to come here from Germany since Sophie Kobuch, the Rainbow Wahine's only senior, who has a French mother and German father.
"He is one of the best players Hawai'i has ever had," Kobuch says of Weber. "He's had great, great years. He has game for sure, but it's also the mental experience and he competes as hard as he can every single point."
Kobuch's team is chasing its first WAC title with the vengeance only a late-season winning streak — the Rainbow Wahine have won nine of their last 11 — can inspire. Her record is 15-8 at the top three singles positions, but it is her soft-spoken sophistication that might be her greatest gift for a team that features four sophomores and three freshmen.
"In my opinion, Sophie is the leader of that team," Weber says. "She has a great attitude; she works so hard on and off the court. The thing I like best about her game is she is moving really well. She has great groundstrokes and, kind of rare for a girl, she has a great volley. Her overall game is really impressive and fun to watch."
Rainbow Wahine coach Jun Hernandez, who became a father for the first time last weekend, trusts Kobuch to do much of the parenting on his team. He calls her a "great leader" and a disciplined athlete, on a squad that is so focused it ranks first among UH teams in GPA at 3.5-plus.
"That's unbelievable," Kobuch says. "The girls for sure are hard-working and fun to be with. It's crazy to look at these nine girls from every part of the world. I think it's good we get to be together and learn about each other, just grow together and work for one common goal."
Over the course of her career, the all-WAC and all-WAC Academic player has seen the 'Bows struggle against schedules loaded with ranked teams. As she leaves, Kobuch is on a team she believes can now "compete with anybody." Her role is to motivate, mow down opponents and act her age.
"I definitely love it," says Kobuch, who graduates next May and plans to go to med school. "I'm not captain or anything, just the oldest and I want to make sure everybody is happy on the team every single day. I know it's not going to happen and it's hard, but I try my best."
Weber's journey started much like Kobuch's. Coach John Nelson told him Hawai'i would win the WAC and go to nationals if he came. When the 'Bows lost in the WAC's second round his freshman season, "I thought he was crazy." But the all-WAC and all-region player "made the best decision of my life" after his freshman year, choosing to stay.
The 'Bows peaked at the 2008 WAC Tournament, upsetting Boise and Fresno to win the school's first tennis championship.
"Everybody started believing," Weber recalled. "It was amazing. Then last year we kind of knew we had a chance because our team didn't change too much. We had a better season compared to my sophomore year. We knew what we had to do. We had the home advantage, the fans were on our side and that was a big deal for us."
It will be different this weekend in Fresno, but Nelson has watched Weber closely for four years and knows he will get a Bonham-like effort from his senior.
"He came in and had a 4.0 GPA his first semester," Nelson said. "He was the first Hawai'i player to make the NCAA Tournament. He's played in the top two and helped us win the WAC and take down Top-20 programs. He deserved it (the Bonham Award)."
The 'Bows are ranked 43rd this week, with second-seeded Fresno State at No. 29 and Boise No. 42. Sunday's men's and women's champions get the WAC's automatic NCAA bids. If Hawai'i earns its three-peat, Weber will be playing in his fourth NCAA Championship instead of participating in graduation ceremonies on May 15. As far as he has come, it is a walk he would not mind missing.