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[ WAHINE VOLLEYBALL ]
Hittle having fun
UH VOLLEYBALLWho: vs. Boise State (14-3, 3-1), 7 p.m. today; vs. UTEP (6-7, 0-4), 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
Radio: Live, KKEA (1420-AM)
TV: Live, KFVE (Ch. 5)
Series: Hawaii leads BSU 6-0 and UTEP 9-0.
Twelve matches into this volleyball season, there has been nothing but good times for fourth-ranked Hawaii. The undefeated Rainbow Wahine continue to find ways to win and, in the process, have found a budding star in Hittle.
The irrepressible freshman has a killer armswing and a smile to match. She brought so much energy and enthusiasm to the practice gym during preseason camp that UH coach Dave Shoji knew he'd have to find a spot for her in the lineup.
That place was as a right-side hitter, where the 6-foot Hittle, who never played the position before, has started for the past 10 matches. She's embraced the challenge with a bearhug, putting together some impressive statistics in the process.
In her last three matches, Hittle has a combined three errors, putting down 54 kills in 97 swings. That's a .545 hitting percentage, which includes a .625 clip in the win at Fresno State on Sept. 30.
Some may point to the second match against Pepperdine on Sept. 25 as Hittle's true coming-out party. She had 13 kills with no errors, and keyed a 5-0 run in Game 4 that jump-started Hawaii in the 3-2 victory over the Waves.
Hittle's CPR routine included two consecutive booming kills, knocking over Pepperdine's Katy Daly on the first and Kekai Crabbe on the second. Hittle, a former Little League pitcher, knows all about a windup and putting a little something on the ball.
"I know my armswing is not the ideal, but it's effective," she said. "I guess it's because I didn't know how to do it right when I first started. People have tried to change it but ... it works."
Hittle always knew she'd be an athlete. Sandwiched between brothers Cary, a year older, and Keith, a year younger, she grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., playing the same sports as they did.
"I was the biggest tomboy," Hittle said. "I played football and baseball. We were a competitive family. It was fun."
Her heroes were NFL stars Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders. She used to collect football trading cards.
At Doherty High, she collected awards.
Hittle was both the school's homecoming and prom queens. She was all-area in basketball, twice all-state in volleyball, the MVP of the state volleyball tournament won by her Spartans, a Volleyball magazine Fab 50 pick, runner-up for Colorado Sportswoman of the Year.
On a whim, she picked up a tennis racquet last spring and, with a volleyball teammate, finished third in doubles at that state tournament. It came as no surprise when StudentSports .com named her as one of its five female prep Super Achievers of the Year nationally.
This past week, Hittle earned player of the week honors from both the Western Athletic Conference and CVU.com.
"I don't like to think about the awards and the politics that go along with them," Hittle said. "Last week was fun and I think I played well. The awards are special, but it takes a team effort to win."
She takes it all in stride, just as she did when being recruited. Hittle initially wanted to go to Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets didn't offer her a scholarship.
She narrowed her choices to Michigan State, Georgia, Florida State, UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii. Hittle saved Hawaii for her last visit.
"It came down to Michigan State and Hawaii," she said. "It came down to the coaching. I thought I could have more fun playing for Dave, Charlie (associate head coach Wade) and Kari (assistant coach Ambrozich).
"I'm very happy here. I could never see myself anywhere else. I love the culture and the (volleyball) tradition here. I would never trade this team. They are my family, my ohana."
Hittle has been a good fit for the Wahine.
"She's very spunky," said sophomore setter Kanoe Kamana'o. "She makes everyone smile and have fun. When things aren't going right on the court, you can turn and look at her. She's smiling, trying to pick you back up.
"She's a really hard worker. It's contagious. You want to work hard with her. She makes things happen."
Without Hittle last week, Hawaii might be having to start a new WAC winning streak tonight against Boise State.
"Tara had two big matches and we needed every one of her kills," Shoji said. "You have to give credit to Kanoe getting her isolated. Tara cashed in on all the good sets, hit for a very high percentage. Hitting .625 at Fresno ... that was an incredible night for her."
It hasn't taken Hittle long to become comfortable on the right side nor appreciate the fans at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"We get spoiled here," she said. "At the away games, it's like 2,000 and that's nobody. The first time in our arena, I felt like I was playing for the national championship.
"I really like getting the leis. And I'm getting used to being recognized in the grocery store. One lady asked if she could take a picture of me with her cell phone because she had to share it with her family."
Hittle is surprised by one thing: starting.
"I thought I had potential in the sport, but I didn't think I had what it took to start at a school like this," she said. "I'm just happy to be playing and I'll play anywhere they want me."
Hittle has never played for a team with a losing record. Doherty went 30-1 last season, winning its last 29 en route to a state title.
Her personal volleyball streak is 41 and counting.
"I didn't have any expectations about how good we'd be this year," she said. "I thought we'd be good and that maybe people would overlook us. We're still figuring things out."
And having fun doing it.
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