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Friday, November 12, 2004



[ WAHINE VOLLEYBALL ]


art
COURTESY OF BEN STUDER
Rainbow Wahine senior middle blocker Melody Eckmier met boyfriend Ben Studer online. He has since moved to Hawaii.


Eckmier ready for last
hurrah with Wahine

The graduate student knows all about shifts, such as the earth-shaking, subduction kind off Japan that are the basis for her marine geophysics thesis.

The volleyball player knows about subtle shifts that can take place on the court regarding team dynamics.

Melody Eckmier might be hard-pressed to decide which has had the greater upheaval: the Nankai Trough off Honshu and Shikoku islands, or the personality of Hawaii volleyball during her five years in the program.

Tectonic plate elevation just might take a back seat to No. 2 Hawaii, which shook off the loss of seven seniors and three All-Americans to enter the final week of regular-season conference play with a 21-0 record.

The 6-foot-3 middle blocker has had a personal shift as well, going from a redshirt freshman still recuperating from ACL surgery to the senior captain for the Rainbow Wahine. She's the last of the 2000 recruiting class, which included last season's player of the year Kim Willoughby.

"It's been different for me," Eckmier said as she prepared for the team's final regular-season homestand. "I'm the last of the 'old group.' We were closer in age, went through 101 (freshman-level) classes together.

"I've been able to take more of a leadership role with this younger group. I can reflect and share my experiences. I try to be a quiet leader on and off the court and lead by example."

She has had to wait patiently for her chance and wade even more patiently through injuries. Eckmier opened the season in the best shape of her life and with a bang -- she set a school record for hitting percentage in the rally-scoring era in the first match against Eastern Washington.

Eckmier hit .900, with a career-high nine kills and no errors in 10 swings. She was also in on a career-high seven blocks.

The next night, she sprained her ankle in the five-game win against San Diego. It took a while to get back into the rotation, where junior transfer Victoria Prince had become a fixture and freshmen Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory had become a tag-team.

"She's fully recovered, but the injury did set her back," Wahine coach Dave Shoji said. "And we played the younger players in part for the future. But she should be right in the mix for the playoffs and the WAC tournament. She's played well whenever she's been in.

"Melody is a good example of what college athletics is all about. She's a great student, a great team player, reliable, responsible, mature. I could go on and on."

But Eckmier's serious playing career won't. This is her last hurrah, and she's looking forward to tomorrow's senior night, where she and utility player Teisa Fotu will be honored following the Nevada match.

"I've seen so many senior nights and I'm ready," she said. "It's a chance to thank all the fans for all the support I've gotten the past five years.

"I'm happy with how it's going and I hope we can end it on a high note. It's going to be different being a fan instead of a player. I'll miss it when it's over, miss being part of a team and part of something special."

Few outside of those wearing a Wahine uniform expected that this season would become as special as it has. For the eighth time in the program's history, Hawaii has won its first 21 matches.

The key for the relatively new team with just one returning starter has been hard work.

"From Day 1 in spring, through the summer, everyone has worked so hard," Eckmier said. "We've really come together on the court. There's been struggles, but on any given night we've had certain people come through for us at certain times.

"There is not a dominant player or two dominant players like we have had. We've been in tight situations this year, but no one is freaking out. People want the ball. They all have confidence.

"And winning? It's just the way it is."

The same thing happened with volleyball recruiting. Eckmier's goal was to play at a top program and "this just happened."

Her older sister Angela needed just a short freeway drive from the family's home in Simi Valley to play for UCLA.

Eckmier liked the idea of going away to play and becoming more independent. She found both when coming to Hawaii, as well as a volleyball-related bonus.

Eckmier met boyfriend Ben Studer online just before coming to the islands.

"One summer night, I wanted to talk to someone about volleyball," she said. "His AOL profile came up. He was playing club volleyball at Idaho and he was a geology major.

"We had a lot in common. He had gone to high school with (former Wahine) Andrea Gomez-Tukuafu. He lived about 8 miles from my (UH) roommates. It was pretty random how it worked out."

Studer has since joined Eckmier at UH and is also attending graduate school. It's made it easier to attend matches.

"Before I moved here, listening to the Internet broadcast was the only real way to stay close to how she was doing," Studer said. "My family, including my parents and grandmas, also now tune in to follow Hawaii over the Internet radio.

"When I was in Idaho, I was able to see a few matches on the road, driving thousands of miles to Reno and Boise, flying to places like San Jose and Pacific."

When the Wahine were sent to Washington State for the 2001 regional, Studer was ecstatic. It would be only a 10-mile drive from his home.

"Melody is a sensitive, intelligent, beautiful, driven, witty and well-rounded woman," Studer said. "She is big-hearted, down-to-earth, and absolutely the best person I know. She is very artistic as well. She painted me two Hawaiian landscape themes while I was back on the mainland that pulled me into them and made me feel like I was visiting her here. She is generous and genuine.

"She loves to make people happy and surprising them with gifts. In fact, she has surprised her parents many times with arriving early in the morning in Simi Valley and awaking them to 'Hawaii Pono'i' on the piano."

There is one joke that became a team thing. The Wahine think it would be funny if they were to win the national championship this year.

"We joke about that it would be so weird if it happened," Eckmier said. "It would be funny for me, the last one of the 'old group' to leave and I would be the only one with a (championship) ring."

That might rival the next big shift in the Nankai Trough.

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