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Star-Bulletin Sports

Thursday, November 16, 2000

W A H I N E _ V O L L E Y B A L L

Star-Bulletin file photo
Tanja Nikolic of Croatia is hoping to help the
Wahine to the Final Four in women's volleyball.

Nikolic’s versatility
spices UH bench

The Wahine junior plays
many positions and capably
fills in for injured starters

By Pat Bigold

In a season when the unbeaten University of Hawaii women's volleyball team seems to be hurtling toward a NCAA Final Four appearance, depth is critical.

And that's where 6-foot Croatian junior Tanja Nikolic comes in.

Nikolic, a durable athlete whose summers are spent catching octopi in the Adriatic Sea, is first off the Wahine bench. She has made five successful starts in relief of injured players to keep Hawaii on track this season.

Tonight she will get her sixth start because left side hitter and offensive leader Lily Kahumoku is sidelined with an injured right wrist in a cast.

Nikolic, 22, is symbolic of Hawaii's strength in 2000.

She can play right or left side as well as middle blocker, all with equal confidence.

"When we were on the road in Tulsa, I was also playing defensive specialist," said Nikolic, who filled in for Kahumoku in the back row last weekend.

"I just don't play setter, but I'm working on that," she added with a laugh.

"She is very versatile," said Shoji. "She's very quick to the ball and has a great arm swing. She can beat you because it's so fast."

Nikolic played with the Croatian junior national team and spent several years with Kastela, a club team from her hometown that was always among the top three or four in the country. Three years ago, before accepting a scholarship with the University of Oregon, she paired with a friend to win the Croatian national beach volleyball title.

On defense, Nikolic presents deception at the net.

"She's a sneaky type blocker," said Shoji. "A lot of times you don't think she's there but she closes the block. She surprises the hitters a lot of times."

Nikolic started three nonconference matches for freshman teammate Kim Willoughby when Willoughby was recovering from an ankle injury (Sept. 7-10) and the Wahine lost only one set in that stretch (to nationally ranked UC Santa Barbara).

In her first start, against Oregon, Nikolic hit a career-high .438. In her next, she served three aces against Northwestern.

"She's such a great player," said Willoughby. "It's sad she doesn't play as much as the starters. But this team is not just a six anymore. It's a seven."

Starting for Kahumoku at Texas Christian University on Oct. 27, Nikolic had a career-high 12 kills.

When that statistic was mentioned just two days ago to her, Nikolic responded with genuine surprise.

"I did?" she said. "In Europe we don't care about statistics."

Born and raised in Kastel Luksic, Croatia, two minutes from a beach, she survived the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and then in more peaceful times developed a love for the sea.

"My brothers didn't like to fish that much so I went with my dad and helped him," she said. "I love fishing and spearfishing. I just haven't had time to do it here yet."

She especially enjoys diving for marine prey.

"Once I broke my eardrum because I went down too deep -- about 20 meters," she said. "I can hold my breath a long time."

She proudly relates that last summer she bagged four octopi.

"The biggest one was about 12 pounds," she said. "They will hide in a hole. You catch them by tying a dead fish to a rope and holding it by the hole."

Nikolic attended a medical high school in Split, Croatia, where she learned hospital lab techniques. As a result, her career goal options are all in medicine: physical therapy, dentistry, or criminal forensics.

She can speak six languages (English, Croatian, Yugoslavian, Italian, German and French).

"I also learned Latin in my high school," she said.

Nikolic speaks Croatian with Slovenian teammate and roommate, Maja Gustin, a freshman middle blocker.

Conversing with Nikolic, you can't help notice the pearl cradled on her pierced tongue.

She said she and a friend in Oregon wanted to do something daring together before she transferred to Hawaii. But a tattoo was out, as far as she was concerned.

"I have different colors," she said. "I have a clear one, a pink one, a blue one. It doesn't hurt at all but you know what, I have problems talking Croatian. We use sounds like 'sh-sh' and I use that part of my tongue to form the sound."

Nikolic said she wishes she could play more but coming off the bench for a winner makes her role exciting.

"We're going all the way, and we know it," she said. "We're making plans for Virginia."

UH Athletics
Ka Leo O Hawaii

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