Wahine took us on sweet ride
This year's Rainbow Wahine were a throwback — from the volleyball wisdom and athleticism that overcame far taller teams to the charming only-from-Hawai'i ESPN introductions at their first final four in six years.
They ground out 28 straight wins while watching out for each other, taking their cue from five disparate seniors who had come up short of their lofty expectations before and were determined not to let it happen again.
We shared their remarkable ride all the way to the national semifinals because they invited us, with their sweet nature and obvious affection for each other. And when they took the opening set against Penn State in the national semifinals, who would become the first to win three consecutive NCAA volleyball titles, they made us believe anything was possible.
Even when it wasn't, they offered us a soft landing because we knew they gave us all they had.
Dave Shoji was named national coach of the year in his 35th season, two months after he won his 1,000th match. Senior Aneli Cubi-Otineru was the heart of a third-ranked team that made its No. 12 postseason seed look laughable. Humble and almost always happy Kanani Danielson was the soul of a group that grew closer all season.
This team resembled the over-achievers of the '70s and '80s and those two were Tita Ahuna and Joyce Ka'apuni, or Terry Malterre and Nahaku Brown. You could not keep them — or their teammates — down.
The 'Bows led the country in attendance for the 16th straight year. They were ranked among the Top 20 nationally in five of the seven top statistical team categories, with Amber Kaufman, Dani Mafua, Brittany Hewitt and Cubi-Otineru Top 20 individually.
But, beyond the numbers and statistics, they were like no other team because of one simple fact: They were Hawai'i's team.
WIE FINALLY FULFILLED GREAT EXPECTATIONS
When her tap-in putt hit the bottom of the cup, Michelle Wie raised both arms, then put a hand over her mouth.
It could easily have been seen as symbolic gestures — the uplifting arms as if to remove the proverbial monkey off her back from great but unfulfilled expectations and the other gesture as if to quiet her critics.
Michelle Wie, 20, the most scrutinized but popular female golfer that Hawai'i, and maybe the world, has ever produced, won her first LPGA tournament in November — her first individual victory of any kind since she was 13.
"It's definitely off my back," said Wie, a Punahou School alum and Stanford student whom the world watched grow up. "I think that hopefully life will be a lot better, but I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot to improve. It just feels so great right now."
Wie hit a spectacular bunker shot to within a foot of the final hole, and her subsequent birdie gave her a two-shot victory in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational at Guadalajara, Mexico, on Nov. 14.
The win was Wie's first since the 2003 Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, where she became the youngest in the 108-year history of the U.S. Golf Association to win an adult USGA event.
Her future appeared infinite back then and Wie, who played in her first LPGA event at 12, continued to break records and set a series of firsts against the best men and women in the world. She turned pro just before her 16th birthday.
She has earned millions on the LPGA tour, with 20 top-10 finishes in 66 appearances, including six heartbreaking runners-up and six third-place finishes. She has made much more in endorsements and appearances all over the world. As a captain's pick, Wie would go unbeaten and become the star in helping the U.S. team win the Solheim Cup.
But one thing was missing — an individual pro title.
After it was over, she told the Golf Channel immediately after, "I can't even talk. I'm bewildered by everything. I feel so fortunate. I'm just so happy."
She would later get a beer shower from Solheim Cup teammates Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lincicome, the very players who once criticized her.
"Just seeing them come out and pour beer all over me, it was a great feeling," Wie said. "I've always seen it on TV and I've always wanted people to pour beer on me. It was as great as I thought it was."
Her first "tweet" might have been more eloquent: "wowwwww......," Wie wrote. "I never thought this would feel THIS great!!!!"
'THE EDDIE' WOULD GO TO CALIFORNIA'S LONG
In front of thousands of spectators at Waimea Bay, and more than 1.5 million viewing through the Internet and television, the world's best big-wave riders put on a dazzling and death-defying display of surfing at the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau contest on Dec. 8.
It was the first time in five years that conditions were suitable to run the contest.
"The Eddie" is the world's most revered — and anticipated — surfing contest because it can run only on a day when wave-face heights are consistently rolling in at 40 feet or higher. It has been completed just eight times since its creation in 1984.
Greg Long of California won the contest, receiving a perfect score of 100 for his best ride.
"It's hard to put into words what this actually means," he said. "Everybody knows this is a world class big wave, and some of the rides will go down in history as some of the biggest paddle waves ever."
The arrival of the big waves had been anticipated for days before the contest, so some spectators camped overnight at Waimea Bay.
On the day of the contest, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 spectators braved the traffic and parking hassles to watch the big waves.
"Everybody is just screaming on the beach and you can hear it," Long said. "It's an amazing sensation."
The quiksilver.com Web site did a live streaming video of the contest, and it attracted more than 1.5 million unique hits from around the world. It was also televised live in Hawai'i via Oceanic cable.
Only 28 of the best big-wave surfers are invited to compete in the contest.
Other standouts from the 2009 event included nine-time world champion Kelly Slater of Florida, Hawai'i surfers Sunny Garcia and Bruce Irons, and Ramon Navarro of Chile.
The contest was created in 1984 to honor Eddie Aikau, the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay and one of the best big-wave surfers of his time. He was lost at sea in 1978 while attempting a solo rescue mission for the capsized voyaging canoe Hokule'a.
"Chicken skin," said Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother and one of the surfers in the event. "That's the only way to describe it. It's been over 30 years since we lost Eddie, but his spirit is so strong here. You can feel it, not just with the surfers but the spectators."
FUJIKAWA BROUGHT MAGIC BACK TO THE SONY OPEN
Tadd Fujikawa did not receive a sponsor's exemption to get into the 2009 Sony Open in Hawai'i last January.
He had to do it the hard way — earning his way in by shooting a 67 to gain one of the four qualifying spots the Monday of the tournament.
But Fujikawa's feats were only beginning.
The 18-year-old would shoot 71-69 to make the cut, then set the Wai'alae Country Club gallery and the golf world abuzz in the third round by actually taking the early lead while shooting a career-best 8-under 62. The gallery surrounding him started to swell, growing to six-deep at times and taking a supportive life of its own.
"The crowd thinks they are feeding off him," said Fujikawa's mother, Lori, during the third round, "but he is feeding off them."
He would be just two shots back of the leaders entering the final round, repeating the magic he produced two years before when he became the youngest in 50 years to make a PGA Tour cut.
But the magic would disappear on Sunday as Fujikawa would shoot a 3-over 73 to tie for 32nd place.
His first PGA Tour paycheck was worth $29,237.14 — $6,600 more than he made in the 18 previous tour events he played since turning pro at age 16.
"I couldn't get anything going today," Fujikawa said after the final round. "I had the same mindset. I was very excited about it, but it didn't happen today.
"It was still a great week."
The 5-foot-1 Moanalua High alum would receive a sponsor's exemption later in the year to play in this month's Sony Open in Hawai'i.
"Two years ago, I was just out there having fun," he would say after the tournament. "It was a great experience and I ended up playing extremely well. But this year, I'm out there to win. And I know I can do it."
PENN SHOWED HE'S ULTIMATE COMPETITOR
BJ Penn started the year with a megafight that had a Sugar Bowl-type attraction and anticipation, and — after a great fall — spent the rest of the year putting himself back together again.
In January in Las Vegas, Hilo's Penn was soundly beaten by Canada's Georges St-Pierre in what was one of the most anticipated and hyped mixed martial arts bouts in the history of the prestigious UFC organization. Thousands of Hawai'i fans followed Penn to Las Vegas to witness the bout and thousands more watched via pay-per-view, creating a stir similar to the Hawai'i-Georgia football game the previous year.
They were left stunned as St-Pierre dominated Penn like no other MMA competitor had before — the two had fought in 2006 with St-Pierre winning by a razor-thin margin. But this one wasn't close and was called after four rounds at the advice of a ringside doctor who inspected Penn between the fourth and fifth rounds. Penn was taken to a hospital immediately after and did not attend the post-fight press conference.
The fight was for St-Pierre's UFC welterweight (170 pounds) title. So, Penn, who was trying to become the first fighter in UFC history to own titles in two separate weight classes at the same time, did not lose his lightweight (155) world title.
"Of course, I was sad after that loss and a lot of things were going through my head," Penn would say days later. "But I woke up one day and said, 'You know what? I'm still the lightweight champ. Let's keep fighting.' "
That he did.
In August before a packed house inside Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, Penn submitted Kenny Florian in the fourth round to retain his UFC lightweight title.
Penn, who moved his training camp to California and trained for five months, said he found motivation, not solely from his upcoming opponent but from the St-Pierre fight.
"It's gotta be the previous fight," Penn said during a UFC teleconference before the fight. "It's gotta be getting my butt kicked and wanting to come back and get back to form."
After the victory, Penn said: "It's good to be taking the belt back to Hawai'i. I've gotten a lot of flak the last couple of months (since losing to St-Pierre). But now Hawai'i has a champion. That makes me happy."
In December, Penn retained his title by stopping No. 1 contender Diego Sanchez in the fifth round before 13,896 crazed fans who got their first taste of UFC in Memphis at FedExForum.
When UFC president Dana White responded to a question about outdoor markets, Penn asked about Aloha Stadium. White said they were interested in taking UFC to markets where it previously hadn't been and a fight would be at a stadium.
MCMACKIN'S GAY SLUR WAS NO LAUGHING MATTER
It was a comment that was meant as a "joke," but it "wasn't funny."
The statements instead turned out to be hurtful and embarrassing as they made news nationwide, spreading through the message boards and becoming subject of ESPN talking heads.
University of Hawai'i football coach Greg McMackin made headlines for all the wrong reasons, using a gay slur multiple times during a speech at the Western Athletic Conference football meetings at Salt Lake City in July. He uttered the slur three times while trying to describe to reporters a chant by Notre Dame football players during a 2008 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl banquet.
Upon his return to Hawai'i, the school called a news conference and announced that McMackin would be suspended 30 days without pay. There also was a 7 percent cut to his $1.1 million annual salary.
The press conference was attended by 30 of McMackin's players who stood by to show support.
Choked with emotion, a tearful McMackin vowed to "show leadership in dealing with both the football program and rebuilding respect for all people in our community."
UH announced that McMackin would also participate in activities with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Student Services on the Mānoa campus.
He also will participate in a public service announcement on how words can hurt, and part of the money from his salary reduction will be used to support a student intern for the LGBT community to assist in campus awareness training.
At the press conference, McMackin said: "I apologize to everyone and anyone I offended. I'm committed to do whatever I can as a life lesson to learn from my mistake. When we make mistakes, we have to learn from it and make better people of ourselves. ... (I'm) sorry I said something so hurtful and I am so remorseful."
RESILIENT WARRIORS FELL SHORT OF BOWL GAME
It started off promising — two wins to open the season.
Then came a last-second defeat — one that would haunt them for the rest of the season — followed by a rash of injuries, and a six-game losing streak.
But somehow the University of Hawai'i Warriors turned a football season of doom into one of hope.
The Warriors, 2-6 at their nadir, would win four in a row, including an overtime win on the road over an inspired Dick Tomey-led San Jose State team and a home victory over bowl-bound Navy and its Hawai'i-homegrown coach, Ken Niumatalolo.
But with bowl visions in sight — and a possible Hawai'i Bowl date with former coach June Jones and SMU — the season came to a crashing halt in a 51-10 loss to Wisconsin.
However, in between the Warriors were resourceful, proving there is life after losing your top two quarterbacks.
Bryant Moniz, who also held a job as a pizza deliveryman, was given the task of operating the run-and-shoot offense after a season-ending knee injury to Greg Alexander, who was experiencing a breakout season, and an injury to backup Brent Rausch.
Moniz would pass for 2,396 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight starts, averaging 239.6 yards a game.
Receiver Greg Salas, who was moved from wideout to slot before the season, also busted out with 106 catches for 1,590 yards, both of which were the second highest single-season totals in school history. Salas also caught eight touchdown passes, averaged 122.3 receiving yards a game and was a semifinalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver.
Senior linebacker Blaze Soares was his inspirational best in helping a defense that had lost nearly all of its starters from the previous season. The former Castle High star would lead the Warriors in tackles and postgame quotes.
Center John Estes closed his career with his 54th consecutive start — an NCAA record.
"It was a good run," Estes said. "It was amazing to be a Warrior all these years. Coming to Hawai'i, I didn't really expect this. I just wanted to play college football ."
But in the end, a 6-7 season would mean an end to three consecutive years of bowl appearances. The swing game that would haunt the Warriors occurred in September when UH dominated early but could not close out UNLV, which won, 34-33.[0x0b]
VICTORINO CAN LOOK BACK ON A MEMORABLE YEAR
Maui's Shane Victorino enjoyed the perfect season, well, almost.
How else do you rank a year in which the Philadelphia Phillies center fielder and St. Anthony alum:
• Became just the second player from Hawai'i — and the first nonpitcher — to be named to the Major League All-Star Game, a game in which he started and got a hit;
• Earned his second consecutive National League Gold Glove;
• Won the Lou Gehrig Award, which honors a major-league player who best exemplifies the Yankee great's character and integrity both on and off the field.
• Played a vital role in the Phillies reaching the World Series for the second consecutive year;
• Met President Obama;
• Got married.
"It's been a wonderful year," Victorino would say after the New York Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series.
"Having all these accomplishments, winning the World Series (in 2008), receiving our (championship) rings, meeting the president, playing in the All-Star Game, it's been a glorious year. Winning it all would've been the ultimate."
There were also some odd and forgettable moments in which Victorino:
• Got thrown out by a home plate umpire while Victorino was playing center field;
• Got doused with beer while making a catch on the warning track against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field;
• Made the front page of the New York Post with a doctored photo of Victorino in his Phillies helmet, jersey and a red skirt with the caption: "The Frillies Are Coming To Town!"
• Made the final out in the World Series.
Victorino faced Yankee ace Mariano Rivera with two outs in the ninth of Game 6. After fouling off numerous pitches and battling one of the best closers in baseball, Victorino finally grounded out.
"I guess I'm gonna be on the highlights all off-season watching myself make the last out," he said. "I definitely didn't want to be that guy. I definitely didn't want to make the last out of the season. Unfortunately, it didn't work out."
Regarding the Post's portrayal, Victorino said: "Why me of among the guys on my team? I don't know. That's just the way things work out. But for me, I don't let those things bother me. I just want to go out there and play."
Passionate on the field, Victorino showed his compassion off it as well.
He donated $10,000 to the Save Our Sports fund to help Hawai'i's public high schools facing massive budget cuts and again held his benefit golf tournament, which this year benefitted the Hawai'i Children's Cancer Foundation.
"It just goes to show that he's got a big heart on and off the field," said Ryan Howard, Victorino's all-star teammate who attended the charitable event.
JONES' RETURN STIRRED MIXED EMOTIONS
He brought you to unimaginable success and happiness, left you for a partner with more money, only to return to celebrate in your home while admitting his heart is still with you.
The June Jones story is Hawai'i's own soap opera.
His return to the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl Dec. 24 as coach of the SMU Mustangs rekindled memories of the good times — and bad.
The University of Hawai'i football program's winningest coach brought unparalled joy to our world in 2007, taking the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl, a Bowl Championship Series bowl usually reserved for college football's elite.
But just a few days later, Jones would leave Hawai'i for Dallas, and a job to revive an SMU program that had not been to a bowl game since 1984, while receiving a lot more money.
Jones, whose five-year contract at UH was allowed to go unrenewed in its final year, got an offer from SMU that was $2 million a year for five years. Jones' UH contract — which was increased from $320,000 annually in the first four seasons — paid about $800,000 a year.
He would leave, ending his nine-year stay as coach, leaving many bitter and broken-hearted while setting in motion events that included the firing of the athletic director and a public apology by the UH president to Hawai'i fans.
Meanwhile in Dallas, Jones was asked during the news conference about taking a program that was 1-11 that past season and that had ceased operation for two years after receiving the NCAA's "death penalty" in the 1980s.
"I'm good at going up," he said.
Just as he revived the UH program, where he took an 0-12 program to a bowl game the next season, Jones would almost do the same at SMU.
After an 1-11 first year, Jones led SMU to a 7-5 record, qualifying the Mustangs for the Hawai'i Bowl, where they beat Nevada, 45-10.
But even upon his return, Jones, who was a UH player in the 1970s, and an assistant in the '80s before becoming its coach from the 1999 season, admitted missing Hawai'i, its people and places, and stating that he would live here upon retirement.
"Once it's in your blood, it's always in your blood." Jones said.
TAKAHARA-DIAS' HIRING HELPED SOOTHED WOUNDS
It remains one of the low points in University of Hawai'i women's basketball.
In April, coach Jim Bolla was fired after school officials conducted an investigation into allegations that he kicked one of his players and after former players complained about a "pattern of verbal abuse."
The 57-year-old Bolla was dismissed "for cause," meaning the university had a reason to fire him and was not bound to honor the remaining two years on his contract, which paid an estimated $120,000 a year.
Bolla would later sue the school, saying he was fired after he complained about discrimination against female student-athletes.
Bolla, the Rainbow Wahine's coach since 2004, had been placed on leave Feb. 13 as UH officials investigated the kicking allegations.
Bolla also received a warning the previous year after school officials investigated allegations of verbal abuse from team members.
The healing process would begin just more than a month after Bolla's firing when on May 28 the school hired former player Dana Takahara-Dias, who was called "the best fit and the best choice" among 85 applicants.
Takahara, 43, was a standout on University High's state championship team in 1984 and played for UH from 1984 to 1988, going from walk-on to starting point guard and team captain as a senior.
"I've lived this program, I have worn that mini-Wahine basketball uniform back in the '80s," Takahara said during a press conference. "But I've also walked these hallways, I've graduated from here. It is a distinct pleasure and an honor to come back to the university that has given me so much."
TE'O'S COLLEGE CHOICE LEFT IRISH EYES SMILING
Punahou School linebacker Manti Te'o was a man in demand, from Notre Dame and USC to even ESPN.
With Te'o miked up by ESPN, the country's top linebacker prospect made the announcement of his choice of college to a live national TV audience and a crowd of about 250 at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall: Notre Dame.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Te'o, Hawai'i's most heralded high school recruit to date who became the first Dick Butkus Award winner for high school linebackers, ended months of speculation by signing a national letter of intent in February.
After fielding offers from an original list of 30 top programs, he chose Notre Dame over Southern California in an 11th-hour decision that surprised many in the college football world.
"I wanted to make a difference, and Notre Dame is on the way up," Te'o said at the time. "I want to help build a dynasty, instead of just joining one. That was a big pull for me."
In a heated recruiting tug-of-war that left fans and media in suspense, Te'o had narrowed his list of finalists from five to three two weeks prior by eliminating Stanford and Brigham Young — leaving Notre Dame, USC and UCLA as his choices.
Two days before the signing, Te'o called UCLA coaches to say he was leaning toward Notre Dame and USC. But his dad, Brian, brought letters of intent and baseball caps from all three universities to the signing ceremony just in case.
The night before, however, Te'o spent much of his time "praying and thinking," weighing only Notre Dame and USC. He would make his final decision at 5 a.m. on the day of the signing.
"It was a hard decision, because I could picture myself at both schools," Te'o said.
As the recruits were instructed to sign their letters of intent, Te'o grabbed the green-and-black Notre Dame cap that was between the USC and UCLA ones on a table and put it on.
The Notre Dame coaching staff members — watching ESPN's live coverage from a campus conference room some 4,000 miles away in Indiana — then threw their hands up and exchanged enthusiastic high-fives.
"I've always been one to blaze my own trail," Te'o said. "My dream is to be part of a program that's building itself back to greatness. ... It's the right decision."
VILORIA MOVED UP IN WORLD WITH KO WIN
For Brian Viloria, the fulfillment of his dream began with a spectacular knockout to win the world title in the Philippines that eventually led to a title defense at home.
In April, after a year competing in the dregs of boxing, Waipahu's Viloria won the IBF light-flyweight world championship with a stunning KO of Mexico's Ulises Solis before a capacity crowd of around 20,000 at Araneta Coliseum in Manila, Philippines.
"This was my last chance," Viloria, 28, said then. "I had to come out and put everything on the table. If I lost this fight, I had to reconsider my sport.
"The last year, five fights in a row in places where people go shopping at, like swap meets and downtown corners. Just having my team believe in me and work with me throughout the year and coming in here to win a world title fight, you can never write a better ending than that."
By becoming a world champion for the second time in his career — he won the WBC light-flyweight championship in 2005 — Viloria fulfilled his longtime dream of defending his title before his home crowd in Hawai'i.
"He really enjoyed fighting in front of a comfortable, supportive audience and he found that in Manila and Hawai'i. He always wanted to have a world title fight in Hawai'i," said Gary Gittelsohn, Viloria's manager.
The fight against Jesus Iribe took place in August and was the first world boxing championship bout staged in Hawai'i since 1976, when Ben Villaflor put his WBA super-featherweight title on the line.
He walked out of Blaisdell Arena with his IBF world championship belt and the admiration of thousands of boxing fans in Hawai'i.
The fight was action-filled and, despite Viloria holding a commanding lead going into the 12th and final round, he decided to hammer it out.
"I thought I owed it to the crowd to give it a show, Rocky-like," Viloria said. "I hope everybody enjoyed that."